The war of words that has dominated the three-way contest in Aheri has centred around the sleeping habits of the present MLA, Raje Ambarishrao Atram. Even though constituents, critics and political opponents accuse the 33-year-old third-generation legislator of waking up at 2 pm, he is expected to benefit from his two main rivals, belonging to the Congress and the NCP.
Etapalli resident Rameshwar Chipiye says the MLA makes visitors wait at least a couple of hours at his palace before meeting them to discuss their problems.
“People here are happy with the central government as it has built roads, and provided electricity and gas connections. But the sheen is fading. He is never seen much,” he says.
Months before the Assembly election, there was uncertainty whether the BJP would even retain Ambarishrao after he was relieved from his roles as Minister of Tribal Development and Gadchiroli Guardian Minister. Chipiye says this is Ambarishrao’s punishment for having nothing to show during his term.
Despite this, the incumbent MLA is expected to profit from alliance partners NCP and Congress both fielding candidates. One of them, Deepak Atram, switched over to the Congress after neither the BJP nor the NCP offered him a ticket, leading the veteran, Dharmaraobaba to stick with the latter. As a result, Chipiye said, voters no longer see either candidate as a viable option.
Speaking at Etapalli on Saturday afternoon, Ambarishrao said both his older rivals had aggressively lobbied for a BJP ticket before being rebuffed. He also sought an apology for being inaccessible, stating that as a state minister, he simply did not have the time to meet his constituents.
Ashish Jhade, a member of the local gram panchayat, says Etapalli still lags behind in terms of basic infrastructure. “The roads in the interior villages are so bad that pregnant women cannot even reach hospitals in Etapalli when they are about to deliver. We also do not have enough hospitals, doctors and anganwadis,” he says.
It is on charges of lagging on development that the Congress candidate has been attacking the MLA. In 2009, Deepak Atram, caused a major upset when, as an Independent, he wrested away the seat that had always stayed with the royal family, defeating three-time MLA Dharmaraobaba Atram.
“Between 2009 and 2014, I cleared a ten-year backlog in development projects. Ambarishrao has done so little that it will take 25 years to do all the work that he was supposed to have done in his term,” he says.
For his part, Dharmaraobaba has been rebuking voters in the constituency for handing over the reins in successive elections to two men he deems unsuitable. At a meeting in Nagepalli village in Alapalli on Friday night, he dismissed Deepak Atram as being untrustworthy and reserved his most stinging barb for his nephew.
“Raje is ruining Aheri by sleeping. Mehnat kare murga aur anda khaaye fakeer. Main mehnat kar raha hoon aur yeh dono ande khaa rahe hain,” he said.
Away from the bitter political contest, the candidate calling for change is a complete outsider. Advocate Lalsu Nagoti, a member of the Madia tribe from Bhamragad taluka. The 41-year-old Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) candidate has focused his campaign on issues that affect the constituency’s tribal communities the most — jal, jungal, zameen (water, forest, land).
“The central government has proposed starting mining of coal and iron ore at 25 sites in the district, but mining only causes destruction instead of development. We are opposed to forests, which supply our livelihood, being cut for mines,” he says.
Nagoti, who is also a member of the zilla parishad, says he is contesting the Assembly election as the concerns of the tribals go unheard by the government and find no mention in the state legislative assembly.
The first Madia to contest the Assembly election, Nagoti says the time has come to do away with the dominance of one family in local electoral politics.
“Ambarish Atram is confident of being voted back to power in spite of having done nothing. There have been no improvements in health and education infrastructure in the last five years. I have been going around and telling people that there are no kings in India anymore, that we live in a democracy not a monarchy,” he says.
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