On social media in Parli, and among the dusty little town’s youngsters, a new slogan has caught on. “No PM, no CM. Only DM.” Of course, in this Assembly constituency, nobody needs to be told who DM is. Dhananjay Munde (44), NCP leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, is once again taking on his cousin Pankaja Munde (40), BJP minister and Gopinath Munde’s eldest daughter, in what is by far the most high-profile face-off among all 288 Assembly seats this election.
And as the campaign enters its last mile, the DM camp is pulling no punches. From emotional speeches about Pankaja having cases filed against him while he maintains an elder brother’s maryada (honourable behaviour) to an oratorial style that reminds Parli’s voters of his uncle, the late Gopinath Munde; from videos with a James Bond tune played on an LED screen to declaring that he will not return to the hustings if he, as legislator, fails to double people’s incomes — Dhananjay is playing every card he can.
“I lost by 25,000-odd votes in 2014, even though there was also a Congress candidate, a huge Modi wave, and a sympathy wave for Pankaja in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death. And to confuse voters more, the NCP was not fielding a candidate against her sister in the Lok Sabha seat bypoll. This time, none of those factors will be at play,” Dhananjay tells The Indian Express.
He says the NCP ran a successful campaign in Beed in the recent Lok Sabha elections too. “But the Prime Minister comes and exhorts voters to give him one vote to honour the martyrs of Pulwama? Which Indian voter would not? But would you call that a vote for the prime minister,” he asks.
Preetam Munde, Pankaja’s younger sister, retained her Lok Sabha seat, defeating the NCP’s Bajrang Sonawane by 1,70,000 votes.
The Parli contest is proving to be a relentless war of words between the cousins. Dhananjay, whose politics Gopinath Munde had nurtured until he handed the Parli baton to daughter Pankaja, says that Pankaja does not even know her father’s dream, “the one she is again promising to fulfil after failing to do so for five years as minister”.
While Dhananjay kicked off his campaign with televised interviews listing Pankaja’s campaign promises from 2014 that allegedly remain unfulfilled, Pankaja has said Dhananjay, already a legislator in the upper house, is in the fray with the sole purpose to see her defeated.
In Pettiwadgaon village on Sunday, people waited since noon for Dhananjay, who showed up at 3 pm to welcome a group of local BJP workers into the NCP fold. “I was the first to raise slogans for Pankaja’s first campaign in 2009. But now I am contesting for the development of the people of my soil. Our taisaheb (an honorific for a sister figure in public life) has not been able to bring water from Jayakwadi dam to our constituency even after five years as minister. Wasn’t that Baba’s dream,” he says.
Aware that Article 370 will be an emotional issue this poll too, he says the BJP is working to delink all issues from the election, except highly emotional and polarising narratives, but the NCP is trying to counter that by asking voters whether they got irrigated land or jobs on account of the change in Kashmir’s status.
Ask Dhananjay about Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s comment that NCP chief Sharad Pawar should be held accountable for farmer suicides, and he retorts: “The CM should give up this childish behaviour. After five years as CM, he is blaming a man who is not in power for the 16,000 suicides the state has seen under this government’s watch. The CM seems to be in Opposition mode. What does he have to say to the families of farmers whose suicide notes specifically mentioned the CM?”
The political mood in the semi-rural constituency is inflamed, and street corner sabhas and slightly larger public meetings by both candidates are seeing healthy turnouts. At the Pettiwadgaon meeting, there are catcalls and whistles at Dhananjay’s jokes, the front rows filled by young boys in awe of Dhananjay, who keeps the one-liners coming. “Let Modi show that bina naukri, chhokri (a wife for a jobless man) is possible. Then I will also say Modi hai toh mumkin hai,” he says. He’s playing to the gallery but it touches a raw nerve — one of the silent side-effects of Marathwada’s long agrarian crisis is that families do not want to give their daughters in marriage to unemployed youths.
Dhananjay says the Parli thermal power station can be restarted to maximum capacity, and cement factories are waiting to set up units alongside. Distress migration, unemployment, absence of alternative sources of income, multiple problems can be resolved, he adds.
The NCP camp is thrilled at the response to DM. Their final campaign charge will start after Prime Minister Modi’s rally in Parli on October 19.