The stage is set for a triangular contest in the Akola Lok Sabha constituency in western Vidarbha where BJP’s three-term sitting MP Sanjay Shamrao Dhotre is fighting Prakash Yaswant Ambedkar of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) and Hidayatulla Barkatulla Patel of the Congress.
Akola, the cotton capital of Vidarbha, is seeing a polarisation between Dalit and Muslims. While Muslims have pledged their support to Patel — the only minority face fielded by the Congress, majority of Dalits appear to have aligned with VBA’s Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr B R Ambedkar. The polarisation of votes, however, is likely to help the BJP retain its electoral one-upmanship in the constituency.
Referring to people’s emotional connect with Prakash Ambedkar in urban and rural Dalit ghettos, Dr Ashok Gadge, an Ambedkarite, said: “In Prakash Ambedkar, Dalits see their hopes and aspirations.
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The support to (Prakash) Amdebkar transcends beyond Dalits. Through VBA smaller segments, like Dhangars and Mallis, have also joined Ambedkar.”
Of the 18.54 lakh voters in Akola Lok Sabha seat, there are 2.75 lakh Dalits and 2.50 lakh Muslims. The Marathas and Kunbhi communities together constitute a vote share of 4.5 lakh. The remaining votes are scattered among various communities and sub-groups like Malli, Koli, Banjara, Dhangar, Adivasis and Brahmins among others.
On Saturday, Dhotre (60), who represents the Maratha community, said: “My confidence has its root in the development work done by the BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.” He claimed that the people in the constituency would rise above caste and community to exercise their votes for a “strong leadership”.
Making a strong pitch for the Congress-led opposition alliance at a rally in Akot Assembly segment of the constituency, Patel claimed that the party was the real custodian of all castes and classes. “Don’t look at my religion or community. You should support the leadership of Congress president Rahul Gandhi and NCP chief Sharad Pawar. The Congress and NCP have always served the poor and the oppressed classes.”
In a sharp attack on the VBA chief, Patel said: “It is evident that Prakash, grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, is helping the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. Our leaders were willing for pre-poll alliance with his party. But he refused on the pretext of number of seats or policies.”
“There is some link between cup and saucer (poll symbol of VBA) and chai (in apparent reference to Modi),” Patel said.
BVA general secretary Dyaneshwar Sultane, meanwhile, claimed that the Congress had “already surrendered the contest to BJP”. “Patel, who has a cooperative background, appears to be the team B of the BJP. The real fight here is between the BJP and VBA,” he said. Earlier in the day, the
VBA workers had took to the streets to campaign for the party, even as Prakash Ambedkar was campaigning in Solapur where he is fighting on a second seat.
Already facing the odds of polarisation of Dalit votes, the Congress cadre in the constituency said that while the party had made a symbolic gesture by fielding a Muslim candidate from Akola, the support from top leadership was “lacking”. A senior Congress functionary, who did not wish to be named, said: “By fielding Patel, the party has made things more difficult on this seat. The decisive Muslim vote in favour of Patel will lead to greater polarisation. The non-Muslim votes will now transfer to BJP.”
Local Congress workers have also accused ally NCP of a lukewarm response, a charge that the Sharad Pawar-led party has dismissed. The NCP has a sizeable representation in the Akola District Cooperative Bank and Agriculture Produce Market Committees.
The BJP, too, seems to be facing an lukewarm ally, with party insiders conceding that a faction of the Shiv Sena has staying away from campaigning for Dhotre. However, BJP appeared to be unruffled.
“If we have to point to one seat which is safest for the BJP, it is Akola. Therefore, we are not affected by minor issues, which crop up in every election,” a BJP strategist, not wishing to be named, said.
Dhotre, who is looking for a fourth term, has won from the constituency in the last three consecutive Lok Sabha elections in 2004, 2009 and 2014.
Of the six Assembly segments — Akot, Balapur, Akola East, Akola West, Murtizapur and Risod — in the parliamentary constituency, the BJP has four sitting MLAs, the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasang and the Congress has one each.
Traditionally a Congress bastion, the party had held the turf between 1952 and 1984. The BJP had made inroads into the seat with senior leader late Pandurang Phundkar winning from Akola in 1989. The BJP held the seat in next two polls in 1991 and 1996.
The political dynamics in the constituency altered with the entry of Prakash Ambedkar, who contested from Akola under the banner of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasang. Ambedkar, who was supported by then Congress and NCP, won 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha polls from the seat. However, as the relationship with Congress and NCP soured, Ambedkar adopted an independent strategy. Interestingly, Prakash Ambedkar has remained a constant, contesting from Akola in each election since 1998.