The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a party with a preference, not one with a difference, says rebel candidate Dr. Vinay Natu. He was denied ticket this time from the Guhagar Assembly seat.
It was one of his supporters who first made that remark after Dr. Natu’s strong claim was rejected by the party he and his father had served since 1972. All eyes are on this contest which has emerged as a challenge to the saffron alliance’s fortunes in its Konkan bastion.
At the last minute, the delimited Guhagar seat was conceded to the BJP’s ally the Shiv Sena which has fielded leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Ramdas Kadam from this seat. Mr. Kadam’s seat, Khed, has merged with Guhagar and Chiplun and he did not wish to contest from anywhere else. A furious Dr. Natu quit the BJP and filed his nomination as an independent candidate from Guhagar opposite Kadam and the Nationalist Congress Party’s Bhaskar Jadhav.
Mr. Kadam is hanging on to the race in Guhagar where the fight is mainly between Dr. Natu and NCP’s Bhaskar Jadhav. A four-time MLA, Dr. Natu’s symbol is a cricket bat. The main thrust of his campaign is the injustice meted out to him. Guhagar was a seat held by his father Sridhar Natu since 1972 when he was in the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. His distraught followers have named their group Sridhar Sena. “The entire local BJP unit is with me,” Dr. Natu says.
While anti-mining protests abound in the Konkan, especially in the Sawantwadi seat in Sindhudurg district, such issues have a taken a backseat in this election. Mr. Kadam too harps on Dr. Natu’s “betrayal” in his speeches. Mr. Kadam is not a great orator. His campaign is lacklustre and attendance at his rallies is thin.
The Sena’s position in Guhagar is rendered even more precarious by the candidature of Vaibhav Khedekar of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Mr. Khedekar has the ability to cut into Sena’s votes and hurt Mr. Kadam even more.
Mr. Jadhav, meanwhile, is focusing on development in the region. He does not see much of a threat from the MNS and feels he will be streets ahead of his opponents.
History repeats itself in this region. Mr. Jadhav, a former Shiv Sena MLA who was denied ticket in 2004, stormed out of the party and stood as an independent from Chiplun. Though he lost, the Sena caved in and the NCP’s Ramesh Kadam benefited from the division of votes. For the second time in four years, Konkan will see a battle that will swing the fortunes against the Sena. In 2004, the BJP-Sena alliance lost three seats to the NCP and this time too the saffron alliance is set to take a hit.
The NCP which has been working on the region is fielding candidates in Chiplun, Guhagar, Sawantwadi and Ratnagiri. Guhagar eclipses the other celebrity contest in the region. Industries Minister Narayan Rane crosses swords with the Sena’s Vaibhav Naik here. This time Mr. Rane is contesting from Kudal, his new seat after delimitation. The Congress is contesting two seats in Sindhudurg district, apart from two more in Ratnagiri district and four in Raigad. Mr. Rane’s entry into the Congress in 2005 ended the Sena domination of Sindhudurg. He won the Malvan seat after a by-election. Four more supporters of Mr. Rane joined the Congress from the Konkan and three of them won in the by-elections.
There are 15 seats now in the three districts of the Konkan, down from 18 earlier. In 2004, the Sena won seven, BJP three, NCP 5, Peasant and Workers Party (PWP) 1 and Congress 2. Mr. Rane’s election from Kudal is not in doubt, though his opponent is Vaibhav Naik a former Congress member and nephew of Shridhar Naik of the Congress. Mr. Rane was once an accused in Naik’s murder, but he was later acquitted.
While Mr. Rane has curbed rebellion in his seat, his clout is resented by many in these parts. In the Lok Sabha elections, Mr. Rane’s son Nilesh won the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg seat by 46,850 votes, far below expectations. Raigad went to the Sena’s Anant Geete who defeated Union minister A.R. Antulay in the general elections.
In the Sawantwadi Assembly segment, Nilesh led the Sena by a mere 2,000 votes, thanks to the huge anti-mining feeling among the people. Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg should see the Congress-NCP emerging as the dominant party.
Raigad has seven Assembly seats. Here, the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), though part of the Republican Left Democratic Front, has tied up with the Sena.
For the Sena, retaining its base will be a prestige issue and for the Congress it will mean re-establishing its hold on a region it once dominated.