The first phase of voting in the 17th Lok Sabha elections on Thursday will cover 1.3 crore eligible voters in Maharashtra, spread across seven constituencies in Vidarbha region, where 116 candidates are in the fray.
The most prominent candidates are Union minister Nitin Gadkari, who faces off against former BJP MP-turned-Congressman Nana Patole in Nagpur, and BJP’s Hansraj Ahir, who will be tested in what is expected to be a close fight in Chandrapur. In 2014, the BJP and Shiv Sena had won all the seven seats. This time, with no discernable Modi wave, the contest will not be so one-sided.
Voting will take place in four phases in the state. In the first phase, Wardha, Ramtek, Nagpur, Bhandara-Gondia, Gadchiroli-Chimur, Chandrapur and Yavatmal-Washim constituencies will go to polls. With 30 contestants, Nagpur has the highest number of candidates in the fray while Gadchiroli-Chimur, with five, has the lowest.
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The voters — 66.71 lakh male, 63.64 lakh female and 181 transgenders — will cast their votes at 14,919 polling centres. With temperatures soaring in Vidarbha, the Election Commission has given directions to provide drinking water and shade to the voters.
A total of 44,000 EVMs and 20,000 VVPAT machines will be put to use with a total of 73,837 employees conducting the polling process. The EC, meanwhile, will webcast the proceedings of 1,400 polling centres, which will be monitored by senior poll officials.
The biggest fight will be in Nagpur where sitting MP Gadkari is contesting against Patole of the Congress-NCP combine. And it may not be as easy this time for Gadkari as it was in 2014. It will be curious to see whether the Kunbi factor will go against Gadkari, as the constituency has a Kunbi candidate in Patole after many years. The last was Datta Meghe in 1992, and he had won. He is in the BJP now.
The constituency has about four lakh Kunbi voters. “Last time, 80 per cent of the Kunbi votes had gone to Gadkari. This time, they will drop by at least 40 per cent,” said a Congress leader from the community.
Elsewhere in Vidarbha, Chandrapur is another hot contest. There, BJP stalwart and Union Minister of State for Home Hansraj Ahir is pitted against Suresh alias Balu Dhanorkar of Congress. Dhanorkar had quit Shiv Sena before elections to join Congress. Dhanorkar is believed to be going strong and leaving Ahir a much worried man.
In Yavatmal-Washim, four-time Shiv Sena MP Bhavna Gawli is fighting anti-incumbency and intra-party feud against Congress’ Manikrao Thakre, who had entered electoral fray after 15 years. Both are Kunbis, which means the all-important Kunbi votes will get divided. But again, agrarian distress and Dalit-Muslim consolidation, if any, would also play a crucial role.
In Gadchiroli-Chimur, a reserved ST seat, a Maoist diktat to vote against the BJP, the first such call by the insurgents who are opposed to polling itself, may play out in areas where they have presence. But a large part of the constituency is non-tribal and unaffected by Maoists. So, non-tribal vote will play a major role in deciding the winner. However, anti-incumbency against sitting BJP MP Ashok Nete may benefit Congress’ Namdev Usendi.
In Bhandara-Gondia, where the BJP had lost against a poorly organised Cong-NCP alliance in the 2018 bypoll necessitated by Nana Patole resigning from the BJP, the party is back in reckoning after Nana’s exit from the constituency to fight from Nagpur as the Congress candidate. Here, NCP’s Nana Panchbuddhe is taking on BJP’s Sunil Mendhe.
Wardha has witnessed a tight campaign between incumbent BJP MP Ramdas Tadas and the Congress’ Charulata Tokas and caste equations are set to play a vital role in deciding the victor. While both Tadas and Tokas can count on the backing of the Teli and Kunbi communities, respectively, the MP is also likely to be affected by farmers and students for not being to generate aid and employment.
In Ramtek, Congress candidate Kishore Gajbhiye is likely to face an uphill task defeating BJP MP Krupal Tumane, as he was virtually unknown in the constituency before his candidature was announced. Strong candidates representing the BSP and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi are also likely to draw significant votes from the Dalit and Muslim communities.
It will also be interesting to see how the BSP and Prakash Ambedkar’s Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi fare this time. BSP has consistently ended up at third position in the region since 2004 in many constituencies.
Another important factor will be the turnout, as Vidarbha is already going through a heat wave with temperatures soaring above 42 degrees Celsius. “Dalits and Muslims are likely to come out in larger numbers this time. So, they will form a large chunk of voters. It is for you to derive your own conclusions,” said a leading political activist.