“How can you promise to get rid of corruption?” an old woman asks Congress’s Pune candidate Vishwajeet Kadam. “We have your interests at heart. We will work for the people of Pune,” he says, before walking ahead briskly in the city’s Dhanori neighbourhood.
The slum-dweller’s question sums up Congress party’s Achilles heel in this constituency. It is battling the taint of corruption charges against its sitting MP Suresh Kalmadi, who was arrested in connection with the Commonwealth Games scam. Mr. Kalmadi has been elected thrice from the seat, but this time the party denied him and his wife the ticket.
Instead, it chose the 33-year-old son of Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam, who hails from Sangli and is not a local resident. Mr. Kadam was earlier president of the State Youth Congress.
Mr. Kalmadi had threatened to revolt, but came around after meeting the party’s trouble shooters. Mr. Kadam’s supporters, however, remain unsure about his support.
“We hope Kalmadi’s people move when they are supposed to move,” a Congress worker said on condition of anonymity. Pune is a prestige seat of the Congress; it has won here nine times in the last 15 Lok Sabha polls. It’s also an all-important seat as it is located in the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra dominated by its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party.
This time, however, the competition is close. The Bharatiya Janata Party has fielded Anil Shirole, who lost by a margin of 25,000 votes in 2009. The party is hoping to draw votes from the city’s conservative middle-class population. However, the BJP too faces internal strife. Mr. Shirole, who is a protégé of senior leader Gopinath Munde, got the ticket scoring over MLA Girish Bapat.
Mr. Bapat was backed by Mr. Munde’s rival and former BJP president Nitin Gadkari. Mr. Shirole is a Maratha like the Congress candidate, while Mr. Bapat is a Brahmin. Some in the BJP fear that not picking Mr. Bapat will cost them the Brahmin vote.
Headache for BJP
The BJP however, has a bigger headache. Pune is a strong base of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The party has fielded Deepak Paygude here, even though it is focussing on contesting this election mainly against its political rival the Shiv Sena.
Mr. Thackeray has, however, declared his support for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and has fielded nominees against the BJP in only two of the 10 seats his party is contesting.
In 2009, the MNS was placed third and split the saffron vote ensuring Mr. Kalmadi’s victory. Its popularity has not waned. In the 2012 Pune Municipal polls, 29 of its corporators were elected, more than that of the Congress or the BJP.
MNS general secretary Anil Shidore sees it as a close battle between the three candidates. “We are banking on a disorganised Congress and BJP,” he said. Asked if the party was hoping for support from an unhappy Mr. Kalmadi, he did not rule out the idea.
“There is a possibility of support from ward members who sometimes act in different directions. We will hope for all factors to work in our favour,” Mr. Shidore said.
This time, the contest for Pune has a new entrant — the Aam Aadmi Party, which has fielded socialist leader Subhash Ware.
“Pune has historically searched for a third alternative: a new Left. Around 40,000 to 60,000 votes out of the about 7 lakh active votes go to the new experiment,” said Mr. Shidore. In 2004, retired IAS officer Arun Bhatia represented this new hope by getting 60,000 votes.
This is the space Mr. Ware is hoping to capture. But in an already crowded election scene in Pune, the party may not cut much ice.