NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who lost his hold on home turf western Maharashtra due to Congress’ poor show in 2014 that allowed BJP-Shiv Sena to make inroads in the region, has made efforts to forge new friendships and win over traditional foes to regain control of the sugar belt which will vote on April 23.
Eight of the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies that vote today — Baramati, Pune, Madha, Hatkalangale, Sangli, Satara, Kolhapur and Ahmednagar — along with Solapur, also part of western Maharashtra, have for long acted as the power centre in Maharashtra. Unlike Vidarbha and Marathwada, this region is more irrigated and fertile and has a network of cooperatives, including sugar factories, dairies, animal husbandry and horticulture units and 4 even a strong network) of educational institutes. So NCP and the saffron combine are locked in an intense battle.Last week, at a rally in Sangli, Pawar posed for photographers with a cricket bat, the symbol of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS) while campaigning for its candidate Vishal Patil, grandson of late CM Vasantdada Patil. Till recently, Pawar was at loggerheads with Patil’s family and with SSS; the ‘straight’ bat signalled they were all on the same page now. In 2014, in addition to the Modi wave, it was the support of SSS that helped BJP-Sena penetrate western Maharashtra and win five out of nine LS seats. NCP won four.
SSS leader Raju Shetti is with Pawar, but the saffron alliance has, in a counter-move, poached on Congress and NCP heavily. Many key Congress-NCP leaders have switched to BJP: Sujay Vikhe Patil, who is contesting on a BJP ticket from Ahmednagar and Ranjitsinh Naik Nimbalkar, who is contesting from Madha, both recently crossed over. In Baramati too, BJP has fielded Kanchan Kul, whose family members were once NCP supporters, against Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule.
Western Maharashtra was once a Congress stronghold and has given the state five CMs: Y B Chavan, Vasantdada Patil, Sharad Pawar, Sushilkumar Shinde and Prithviraj Chavan. But the party is near-invisible here. Except for Solapur and Pune, the party has left it to NCP and SSS to take on the BJP-Sena combine.
Jalna and Aurangabad from the Marathwada region, Jalgaon and Raver from north Maharashtra and Raigad and Ratnagiri from the coastal belt will also vote on April 23.