Nagpur: Nagpur has a special status in state and national politics. As Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari are elected from Nagpur and the RSS headquarters too is located there, this city also known as the centrepoint of India and has literally become the centrepoint of state politics.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), having been in power at the Centre, state and also in the local civic body – the Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) for a long time, has been in the news for denying tickets to sitting MLAs with strong chances of winning, ignoring fresh aspirants, which many believe was a one-sided decision of the party, foisting its choice of candidates on the voters.
While rebellion and factionalism were common in the Congress, this time dissidence was plainly evident in the BJP. The denial of tickets to South Nagpur sitting MLA Sudhakar Kohale and the city BJP president and former mayor Pravin Datke, evoked sharp reactions from party workers and supporters of both leaders protested against the party in their respective constituencies. However, the party bosses succeeded in pacifying both the leaders.
Energy Minister Chandrashekhar Bawankule being axed by the party was the move that took many by surprise. Nagpur City has five assembly constituencies -- East Nagpur, West Nagpur, South Nagpur, North Nagpur, Central Nagpur and South-West Nagpur – the seat represented by Fadnavis, besides, Kamptee, a suburb, represented by Bawankule.
In 2014, when long-time alliance partners BJP and Sena contested the assembly polls independently, the BJP registered a thumping victory, bagging all the six seats.
This time, while the BJP has allotted the tickets to four sitting MLAs from the west, east and southwest, two of its legislators – the energy and the guardian minister Chandrashekhar Bawankule and the MLA from Kamptee, along with Kohale, could not make it to the poll arena this time, thanks to the party top bosses.
However, Fadnavis will once again be contesting from southwest Nagpur. The last time he had defeated Praful Gudadhe-Patil of the Congress. This time, the Congress has fielded Ashish Deshmukh against him. Deshmukh, originally a Congressman, the son of former minister and Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) president Ranjit Deshmukh, had quit the Congress last time, getting elected on a BJP ticket from Katol assembly constituency.
However, after this brief stint, Ashish has returned to the Congress fold and has been rewarded with a ticket from southwest Nagpur, being viewed by the party as their best prospect to fight the CM on his home turf.
The denial of a ticket to Bawankule has been making headlines from Day One as Bawankule, is considered the blue-eyed boy of Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and an equally close confidant of Fadnavis.
His report card showed that he was the most vibrant and active minister. Reports say that Fadnavis would simply order the implementation of a particular scheme in the region and there would always be a positive response from Bawankule, who has risen to his position from his humble beginnings as a rickshaw driver.
Every weekend, he would fly back to Nagpur from Mumbai, address meetings of officials from different departments to take stock of the progress of various government schemes and meet people – often at Ravi Bhavan (ministers' cottages in Nagpur), listen to their grievances and take steps accordingly.
However, a section of the media reported that Bawankule, a three-time MLA was axed at the behest of a major corporate house, the Adani Group, which is also in power generation business and considered to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Congress tried to cash in on the opportunity by circulating messages on social media that the Teli community – which Bawankule belongs to, has been betrayed by the BJP, to appease Modi’s corporate friends. However, Bawankule was quick to respond and in turn, appealed to the community members not to fall prey to such malicious campaign. It is reported that both Gadkari and Fadnavis threw all their weight behind Bawankule, but failed to persuade the central leadership.
However, Bawankule has been entrusted with the task of monitoring the election in East Vidarbha constituencies. Tekchand Savarkar, a former zilla parishad member has been given a chance to stand from Kamptee, replacing Bawankule. Savarkar is also a Teli and the community has a sizeable vote bank in the constituency, besides being the stronghold of Bawankule.
West Nagpur has traditionally been a BJP bastion even when it was not in power. Sitting MLA Sudhakar Deshmukh has been given a second chance – which came as a surprise for many, as it was felt in party circles he would not get the ticket this time. His poor health was cited as a reason. But party bosses clearly thought otherwise.
The Congress, on the other hand, has fielded the former mayor and Nagpur Congress city president Vikas Thakre against Deshmukh. Thakre, who belongs to the Vilas Muttemwar camp, has a good image and sizeable hold in the constituency. Besides, he is also popular among the BJP voters in a particular pocket of the constituency, which may change the equation and ultimately turn the tide in the Congress’s favour.
In South Nagpur, sitting MLA Kohale was axed by the BJP Parliamentary board and former MLA Mohan Mate, a close friend of CM Devendra Fadnavis, has been given the ticket. Mate represented the constituency a long time ago but has not been in the news lately. But he had started the groundwork for himself by organising events in the constituency to build his base and stake a claim for the ticket. His rival will be Girish Pandav from the Congress.
In East and Central Nagpur, sitting MLAs Vikas Kumbhare and Krishna Khopde will have a second run respectively. The Congress’s Bunty Shelke will face off against Kumbhare.
Although it seems that the BJP will repeat its 2014 show from Nagpur City, there is a feeling that the party has adamantly forced candidates of its choice on the people. While Fadnavis’s warning to the rebels to withdraw their nominations has had some impact, former deputy mayor and BJP leader Sameer Holay still remains in the race from South Nagpur constituency. Only the results of the poll will tell us how correct was the party bosses' decision to axe Bawankule and Kohale and ignore fresh aspirants like Datke.
(The writer is a senior journalist from Nagpur)