It’s cars versus ‘karyakarthas’ in Bhandara-Gondiya

Apr 17th, 2009 | By editor | Category: In News, Nation, Opinion, Viewing News

P. Sainath

MUMBAI: Did Ms. Sonia Gandhi’s visit here help Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel pull through this time in Bhandara-Gondiya? It’s a question many were asking at the close of polls across Vidarbha on Thursday. But that will wait weeks for an answer.

Mr. Patel will be hoping that Ms. Gandhi’s tour and rally turned things around for him in Bhandara, where he was facing rough weather — on several fronts. Ms. Gandhi’s meetings in Vidarbha drew big crowds and had an impact. The question is whether that impact was enough to save Mr. Patel from a tight situation. In 2004, despite throwing enormous resources and energy into the campaign, Mr. Patel lost by 3,009 votes to Shisupal Patle of the BJP.

“Only the margin will be bigger this time,” said Mr. Patle, a Powar (which community has 2.5-lakh votes in the constituency of 14.5-lakh voters). “That Nana Patole [rebel Congress MLA since expelled] is also in the race will only hurt him worse. It will take away the Congress OBC vote. Meanwhile, dalit votes will go against him, too. His enormous resources won’t save him. He has many hired cars, we have many committed ‘karyakarthas’ [activists].”

His camp also points out that the Aamgaon Assembly segment where Mr. Patel took a healthy lead the last time is out of the constituency after delimitation. It is now in Ghadchiroli-Chimur.

In fairness to Mr. Praful Patel, he has won from Bhandara before. But resentment runs aplenty in Bhandara-Gondiya. To begin with, the region has 1.8-lakh beedi workers now nearly destitute after the migration of that industry — seen as linked to Mr. Patel’s family — to places in Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, and elsewhere. Mr. Patel himself, though, is dismissive: “Is that an issue? It’s not, really,” he told The Hindu while on the campaign trail. All the other candidates, though, often bring it up. And while the rise in the minimum support price for paddy to Rs.900 is a talking point, farmers in this paddy belt insist it is nowhere near adequate. Bhandara district is amongst the five or six lowest in the State in per capita GDP.

Then there is Mr. Patole, sitting Congress MLA from Bhandara until he resigned the seat and was also expelled a fortnight ago.

There was all along much sympathy for Mr. Patole amongst local Congressmen. His expulsion has sharpened their resentment towards the NCP’s Praful Patel.

The post-Khairlanji atrocity and OBC consolidation also strengthens Mr. Patole, coalescing behind him. Apart from the 2.5-lakh Powar votes in the constituency, there are nearly 3-lakh Kunbi and about 2-lakh Teli votes. Mr. Patole’s camp claims to have made deep inroads into all these groups.

There is also the BSP, which by grabbing over 90,000 votes in 2004, was mainly responsible for Mr. Patel’s defeat that year. This time, say local BSP leaders, “we will do far better as our candidate is a local, not an outsider like the last time.” However, though their candidate advocate Jaiswal is a local, he is not, point out Mr. Patel’s camp, a dalit. Therefore, they believe, he cannot draw the number of votes that the BSP’s 2004 candidate did. Mr. Jaiswal firmly believes otherwise. “We will take a lot more votes this time,” he asserts. There are about 2-lakh dalit [Buddhist] votes in the constituency. There are also around 60,000 Hindu dalit votes but “those latter are with us,” says Mr. Patle of the BJP.

Mr. Patel said he did not find the BSP a serious threat at all. But there has been a damaging campaign amongst dalits against him. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar lost from Bhandara constituency in a 1954 by-election.

The BSP harps on the point that Manoharbhai Patel, father of the Civil Aviation Minister, was one of the main Congress organisers behind that defeat. Mr. Jaiswal even claims to have authored a booklet on the subject. Even if Mr. Jaiswal is not himself a dalit, BSP activists worked hard for him and the party has a loyal vote base.

So there is the BJP, the BSP and Mr. Patole — all troubling Mr. Patel at some level. Against this is the galvanisation of the Congress vote by Ms. Gandhi’s visit. And the enormous resources his campaign has at its command. Mr. Patel believes that “Nana Patole is not relevant. This is a Lok Sabha election. He was an MLA.” Nor was the loss of Aamgaon in the delimitation an issue. “So what? These changes occur both ways.”

On Thursday, the voters of Bhandara-Gondiya decided which way the change would occur this time.

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