Nashik: North Maharashtra region, comprising Ahmednagar, Dhule, Jalgaon, Nandurbar and Nashik districts, which was once a bastion of the Congress, appears to have slowly slipped out of the party's hand as the BJP has made deep inroads there.
With the Assembly elections just days away, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to further expand its footprint in North Maharashtra, which has left the Congress-NCP combine gasping for breath. The region has witnessed several leaders switching loyalties across party lines.
The five districts in the region comprise 47 out of the total 288 Assembly constituencies in the state. While Nandurbar has four seats, Dhule and Jalgaon have five and 11 seats respectively. Nashik district has 15 seats, while there are 12 Assembly segments in Ahmednagar district.
Nandurbar and Dhule districts, which have significant concentration of tribal population, were traditionally the stronghold of the Congress.
Former Union Minister of State for Home Manikrao Gavit had represented Nandurbar in the Lok Sabha for nine consecutive terms.
After joining active politics, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had addressed a rally in Nandurbar for the first time while launching the UPA government's flagship scheme- Aadhaar - from the district.
However, this fortress of the Congress was first breached when the BJP roped in Heena Gavit, daughter of NCP strongman Vijaykumar Gavit, who was a cabinet minister in the Congress-NCP government for 15 years in the state.
The BJP fielded Heena, a doctor, against Manikrao Gavit in 2014, and later gave her father a ticket to contest the Assembly polls that year.
In Dhule and Nandurbar districts, the Congress has five MLAs, while the BJP has four.
Of the three Congress MLAs in Dhule, Kunal Patil unsuccessfully contested the Dhule Lok Sabha seat earlier this year. Similarly, KC Padvi, the party MLA from Akkalkua in Nandurbar, also contested the Nandurbar Lok Sabha seat, but lost to Heena.
Interestingly, in the recent Lok Sabha election in Nandurbar, Padvi was leading in all the Assembly segments, except in Shirpur. While Padvi polled 76,682 votes in Shirpur, Heena bagged 1,17,388 votes.
Shirpur Congress MLA Kashiram Pavra had won 2009 and 2014 Assembly polls.
In 2014, the Congress and NCP had won two seats each in Nandurbar, while in Dhule, the Congress had got three and BJP two seats.
Amrish Patel, a senior Congress leader from Dhule, is reportedly on his way to the BJP.
In the 2014 Assembly polls, the Congress had won two seats in Nashik, while NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena had bagged four seats each. The CPM had won one seat then.
In Nashik, the Congress had two MLAs in Malegaon central and Igatpuri. Nirmala Gavit, the Congress MLA from Igatpuri, has now joined the Shiv Sena.
NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who represented Yeola in Nashik, is reportedly keen on rejoining the Shiv Sena, although he has denied the reports.
In Ahmednagar, Vaibhav Pichad (Akole) and Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil (Shirdi) quit the NCP and Congress respectively to join the BJP.
While Bhausaheb Kamble, MLA from Srirampur has quit the Congress to join the Shiv Sena, Sangram Jagtap of the NCP is also reportedly on his way out.
In Ahmednagar, the BJP won five seats, NCP three, Congress three and Shiv Sena one seat in 2014.
In Dhule, Anil Gote, who had contested on a BJP ticket, has quit the party.
The saffron party had swept the Dhule and Ahmednagar municipal corporations when the civic polls were held last year.
BJP minister Jaykumar Raval is the sitting MLA from Sindkhed in Dhule district, while Water Conservation Minister Ram Shinde is MLA from Karjat Jamkhed in Ahmednagar district.
In Jalgaon district, BJP stalwart Eknath Khadse has represented Muktainagar, while Water Resources Minister Girish Mahajan is the sitting MLA from Jamner.
In this district, the BJP has six MLAs, Shiv Sena three, while NCP and independent have one seat each.
Talking to PTI about the BJP's poll prospects in North Maharashtra in the upcoming state polls, Khadse expressed confidence that the party would perform well as it has expanded the base in the region.
"The BJP started making inroads in northern Maharashtra in 1978-1980, when Uttamrao Patil, from Dhule was the state Jan Sangh and later Janata party chief. Later, senior BJP leaders late Gopinath Munde and Pandurang Phundkar worked hard to expand the base in the region," he said.
"The BJP made its base in Jalgaon district so strong that it has only lost one Lok Sabha election since 1989," Khadse said.