Blowing the lid off Maharashtra’s multi-crore irrigation scam is not the only feather in former bureaucrat Vijay Pandhare’s cap. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate from Nashik, who raked up several issues of corruption in his 22-year career in the State government’s Water Resources Department, was transferred 17 times. So, one phone call from AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal asking him to join the fledgling party was enough to convince him to join electoral politics.
The small-time irrigation official shot to national prominence in 2012 after he wrote letters to the Maharashtra Chief Minister and Governor alleging irregularities and cost inflation in irrigation projects. The issue had led to the resignation of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who once headed the Irrigation Ministry.
“It was days before the Delhi election results and I was advised to wait until I saw the performance of the party. But I was sure I wanted to join the AAP because I have always fought against corruption,” said the 60-year-old who retired from service in November last year.
Mr. Pandhare faces stiff competition in Nashik, a constituency of 15 lakh voters. The city and its outskirts, known for their grape production, have now emerged as a strong industrial belt. The constituency, with a population of 25 per cent of Marathas and another 25 per cent of Other Backward Castes, is the pocket borough of NCP leader and PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal. This is Mr. Bhujbal’s first Lok Sabha contest, but his nephew Sameer Bhujbal is the sitting MP. Mr. Bhujbal himself has won in the Assembly elections twice from Nashik’s Yeola constituency.
The other big contender here is Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which came second in the last Lok Sabha elections, even ahead of the Shiv Sena. The MNS has fielded Pradeep Pawar and the Shiv Sena candidate is Hemant Godse. The others in the fray include Congress party’s rebel corporator from Nashik Dinkar Patil, who announced his candidature from the Bahujan Samaj Party and CPM corporator Tanaji Jaibhave.
However, Mr. Pandhare insists he has a fighting chance. “People are ready to give a chance to an alternative. I tell them to think of Abdul Karim Telgi’s narco test before hitting the button. If they do so, they will not vote for Mr. Bhujbal. Moreover, I have become a known face after the irrigation scam,” he said. Mr. Bhujbal had come under a cloud in the Telgi scam but the CBI’s chargesheet did not mention the politician’s name.
Many in Nashik remain sceptical of Mr. Pandhare, including the owner of a sports store right next to the AAP office. As Mr. Pandhare entered an open tempo and 20 bikes followed for a planned road show, Mr. Singh said: “This party is not following the right channel. How can it solve large issues of the country if it has not even dealt with local problems?” he asks.
The road show had been organised across 20 km in the city. Fifty bikes were expected to be part of the rally but only 20 turned up. “The others will join mid-way,” said Mr. Borade. Along the path, people came out of their windows to catch a glimpse of the new voices. “I have not heard of Mr. Pandhare but I think I will vote for him. We are fed up of Congress and BJP,” said Manjiri Lele, a schoolteacher.