“I want my party workers to win me 45 seats from the state. To achieve that, we will have to win Baramati,” said BJP president Amit Shah during his visit to Baramati on February 9.
Speaking at the same venue, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis said, “Last time, we lost Baramati by a small margin. Had there been a lotus symbol, we would have won the seat.” In 2014, Mahadeo Jankar of the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP), a BJP ally, had lost to Supriya Sule of the NCP by around 69,000 votes.
So, why is Baramati, a seat that is considered NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s pocket borough, so crucial to the BJP’s plans in Maharashtra?
Pawar, who first won from Baramati in 1984 as a Congress candidate, has contested 7 Lok Sabha elections — 6 from Baramati and one from Madha — and won all by huge margins. The biggest win was in 2004, when Pawar sailed through by a margin of 4.22 lakh votes.
Local leaders say Pawar’s popularity in Baramati is so high that he would win elections without even without campaigning. “He would visit the constituency only twice — to launch the campaign and on the last day, when he would address a massive rally. The rest of the time he would be… campaigning for party candidates,” said NCP leader Yogesh Behl.
In 2009, Pawar vacated the seat for his daughter, Supriya Sule, who won her debut election by a margin of over three lakh votes. In the 2014 elections, however, the NCP got a scare as Sule managed to win the seat by a reduced margin of around 69,000 votes.
In fact, in the initial round of counting, Sule trailed her rival Jankar, something that has never happened to Pawar, say NCP leaders in Baramati. They say that in all the elections he has contested, Pawar always led from the first round and has never had to look back.
Sources say that it’s this jolt to the NCP in the 2014 elections that has emboldened the BJP to go all out this time. Besides, many in the BJP believe that the morale of NCP cadres is at an all-time low. They point to how NCP leaders and workers have been persuading Pawar to contest the elections though he had earlier said that he would stay out. Early last month, NCP leaders from Madha met Pawar and urged him to fight the election from there.
“By going all out for Baramati, we want their morale to go down further,” said BJP spokesperson Mahadev Bhandari.
Also, say sources in the BJP, the party wants the NCP chief, who is being talked of as a potential contender for the prime ministerial chair, to be kept busy in Baramati. “We want to keep Pawar confined to Baramati so that he doesn’t damage the chances of our candidates elsewhere,” said a BJP leader.
“Last time, we almost won the seat. This time we will not leave anything to chance as there is resentment among voters because of the lack of development and water crisis in parts of the constituency,” said Bhandari.
Dismissing the BJP threat, NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik said, “We are not in the business of figures like the BJP, which has been saying that if they win Baramati, they will achieve their target of 45. These are all feku figures, figures from matka (gambling) den…,” he said.
NCP MP Vandana Chavan said, “BJP is going after Baramati because it is… a prestigious seat for the Pawar family and NCP. But it is not an easy seat. Pawarsaheb has worked very hard to nurture and develop the constituency over the years and so has Supriyatai….”
NCP ally Congress too dismissed the BJP’s chances in Baramati. “They want to keep parroting the word Baramati so that the voter mood swings in their favour. It is a deliberate strategy,” said Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant.
Meanwhile, Jankar, the RSP leader who gave Sule a close fight in 2014 and who was awarded with a ministership in the Fadnavis government for his effort, has been taken aback by the BJP’s announcement that it will field its own candidate from Baramati.
“I will not say anything now except that our party intends to contest the poll from Baramati as an alliance partner. I will make the final decision on March 5,” he said.