Maharashtra BJP chief faces tough fight in state council poll

By Shyam Pandharipande, IANS,

Nagpur : For the first time in 30 years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing an uphill task in the Maharashtra legislative council election from the graduates’ constituency here with state unit president Nitin Gadkari locked in a tough contest against Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-supported Baban Taywade, reckoned as a strong candidate.

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The election, which will give the BJP heavyweight a fourth consecutive term in the state council if he wins or mark maiden contestant Taywade’s successful entry in politics if he trounces the former public works minister, is slated for Tuesday.

And because a tough fight is on the cards for the first time since BJP won the elite seat in 1978, its outcome two days later is keenly awaited.

Gadkari and his campaign managers do not, however, agree that it is a tough fight. “I will win thrice as many votes as my rival and break all previous records,” he told IANS.

Not to be cowed down, Taywade said he was 101 percent confident of victory and that the margin would be of 10,000 votes at the very least.

West Nagpur BJP legislator Devendra Fadnavis said: “It’s clearly a one-sided affair this time too; all I can concede to those talking of a tough fight is that there is a semblance of fight this time.”

The Nagpur graduates’ constituency, spread over the revenue division’s six districts namely Nagpur, Bhandara, Gondia, Wardha, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli, has nearly 180,000 registered graduate voters, an addition of nearly 20,000 since the last council election in 2002.

Though there are 10 contestants in the fray including Bahujan Samaj Party’s Pradip Padole, it is virtually a straight contest between Gadkari and Taywade.

Gadkari has an advantage with a solid organisational network – BJP has three MPs and nine legislators in the revenue division besides a legislator belonging to ally Shiv Sena and rules the Nagpur Municipal Corporation and Nagpur Zilla Parishad (district council).

Taywade’s strength lies in his two-decade long stint in university politics, accounting for hundreds of trusted friends among college teachers.

An image as the most dynamic minister in the 1995-99 Shiv Sena-BJP cabinet and a record of stellar performance as leader of opposition in the state legislative council are the highlights on Gakari’s score-card.

Taywade, the principal of a high-profile local college, is drawing the graduate voters’ attention to the work he has done for the university teachers and students during his tenures as a university senate and management council member.

Gadkari got a shot in the arm when three Republican Party of India faction leaders – former MP Jogendra Kawade, former Maharashtra minister Sulekha Kumbhare and former legislator Upendra Shende – supported him earlier during the high voltage campaign and donning a blue cap, declared that dalit icon Babasaheb Ambedkar was his icon too besides Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) founder late K.B. Hedgewar.

The caste factor has come into play in a big way in the election campaign with Taywade describing himself as a man belonging to ‘bahujan samaj’ which comprises over 60 percent of the electorate and accusing Gadkari of indulging in caste politics by donning the blue cap.

Pointing to the blue cap on Gadkari’s head, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who addressed a campaign meeting for Taywade, too accused the BJP leader of “cheap gimmickry” to attract “dalit” votes.

Gadkari, a Brahmin and an RSS loyalist, also tried to woo Muslim and Sikh voters by getting a few leaders from the two communities to sign an appeal in his favour.