A common refrain in Latur’s dusty towns is that nothing’s been the same since Vilasrao Deshmukh died in 2012. The Congress party’s once unassailable position in the district has been whittled, the city that got a multiplex before some of Mumbai’s more distant suburbs appears a little worse for the wear. A couple of years ago, the education hub with lakhs of students had to be supplied drinking water by a water-train.
But at restaurants, stores and corner tobacco kiosks alike, a mention of the former Maharashtra chief minister immediately yields the response: “Can it be Vilasrao’s Latur again?”
According to local Congress leaders, this election is witnessing unprecedented efforts. But the party’s candidate for Latur Lok Sabha seat is agriculturist and businessman Machhindra Kamat from Udgir taluka, whose only brush with electoral politics was an unsuccessful bid for Udgir Assembly seat in 2009 on an NCP ticket.
The consolation for the Congress, which has struggled to find a candidate since it became a reserved (SC) seat in 2009, is that in Sudhakar Shringare, the BJP, too, has offered a fresh face this time. Shringare is backed by minister Sambhaji Patil-Nilangekar, also Maharashtra’s guardian minister for the district, considered close to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, and at the forefront of cementing BJP’s position in Latur’s local bodies.
“We are focusing our campaign on failures of the present regime,” said Vyankat Bendre, Latur district Congress president. He said people in Latur have been “Congress-minded” for decades, barring three exceptions.
“The guardian minister promised water from Ujani dam for Latur but that didn’t happen,” Bendre pointed out. “A new train was promised; that didn’t happen. Funds for various institutions they now control haven’t been released. Only a railway coach factory was inaugurated — that too on land belonging to Manjara Sugar Factory that we gave.”
By all assessment, Congress’s Kamat is well-liked by the people. In Udgir, adjoining his village of Kasral, residents not only have a certain pride that a man from their little town is vying to be a parliamentarian, but also have warm, kind words for him. “He has helped hundreds of people. I was once with him when an accident victim from Udgir was rushed to a Pune super-specialty hospital on his insistence. He waited there for hours until the surgery was over,” said Chandrakant Shere, Udgir resident and long-time acquaintance and supporter of Kamat.
Kamat has an MCom degree, and his first business was a masala-manufacturing unit in Hinjewadi, Pune, which his son now oversees. He tried his hand at a solar park, also in Hinjewadi, but wound that up. His affidavit mentions other commercial properties he owns in Hinjewadi.
“He’s seen as having a genuine interest in people’s well-being. Despite being based in Pune, he was frequently in Udgir,” another local resident said.
But goodwill alone will not win Kamat this election.
In 2017, the BJP upset the Congress for the first time ever in Latur Municipal Corporation, winning 36 of 70 corporator seats. The saffron party has won multiple local body polls in recent years, including some that had been powerful local Congress satraps’ fiefs for decades. This network of local-level Congress leaders is now shattered by infighting.
Vilasrao’s political career began in Babhalgaon village panchayat — first as a member, then sarpanch, before he was elected to Osmanabad Zilla Parishad and other local bodies, and finally become a legislator in 1980. Over this time, he built an army of loyalists, something son Amit Deshmukh, the Latur city legislator and former minister in the Prithviraj Chavan cabinet, has been unable to replicate.
Amit has weathered criticism since he first contested Vidhan Sabha elections, but this could be a defining moment in his career as he tries to wrest back his father’s political legacy. He recently announced the induction of local Shiv Sena leader Abhay Salunkhe from Nilanga, the guardian minister’s hometown, into Latur Congress. It was an uncharacteristic move, but reflective of Latur Congress’ no-holds-barred approach to this election.
“It will be the first election with neither Gopinath Munde (late BJP leader) nor Vilasrao Deshmukh, and the entire Marathwada region has not been able to produce a leader like either of them,” said Umakant Patil of Udgir.
In Latur, it’s easy to see why Vilasrao enjoyed a demigod status. Unlike many other Maharashtra politicians who have lorded over one sector — whether sugar cooperatives or education or construction — Vilasrao left his mark across the district: cooperatives, irrigation, medical and educational institutions, the pulse trade in Latur, a broad gauge line for Latur in 2010, and more. At one point, all major institutions across these fields were controlled by the Congress, in addition to controlling the market committee, municipal bodies, and other local bodies and educational trusts.
“The minorities are certainly back with the Congress,” said Qayyum Shaikh, Latur resident. But fence-sitters could be swayed by a Narendra Modi rally, he added.
Khayyum Razzaksaab, editor of a local newspaper in Latur city, said: “People went to Ausa expecting to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak on vikas. But there was no mention of jobs and development. Modi’s speech on nationalism in fact angered many… It looks 50-50 now for Congress and BJP in Latur.”
Towards the end of his career, Vilasrao Deshmukh was seen as the invincible comeback child — he lost Maharashtra’s chief ministership to Sushil Kumar Shinde in 2003, only to make a splash with a big electoral victory in 2004 and return to Varsha, the chief’s minister’s official bungalow in Mumbai. He made the embarrassing and inexplicable decision of allowing filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma to peruse with him the bombed interiors of the Taj Mahal Hotel after the 2008 terror attack, but later made it to the Rajya Sabha and then ensured victory for a candidate handpicked by him in 2009 Lok Sabha polls.
If the Congress candidate makes it, even if credit will be due to a large team of committed party workers and pollsters, Amit Deshmukh will still pick up that part of his father’s legacy — strong rebounds.