If there is any party the voters in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, especially the western parts, speak of with easy familiarity, it is the Shiv Sena. “Sena workers come here more often. Call them anytime and they come,” says Raju Nitnavre, a non-Sena party worker from Yavatmal district’s Sonkhas village.

In the Yavatmal-Washim district, which together account for 10 of the 62 Assembly segments in Vidarbha (after delimitation), the newly-elected MP, Bhavna Gawli, has been able to establish a winning rapport with her constituency.

“Door-to-door” approach

“Bhavna has made efforts to share the joys and sorrows of people. She lives in nearby Risod and attends several marriage functions and other events we invite her for. This Lok Sabha, the Congress hardly campaigned they conducted a hotel campaign. Whereas the Sena went door-to-door. They help out with the local problems,” says Narayan Nivrutti Labade, the sarpanch of Washim’s Savargaon village.

This personal approach could well work a charm for the party in an Assembly election where the candidate-next-door factor comes more into play. Compared to other parties, the Shiv Sena has enhanced its significance in Vidarbha in the last five years.

In the 2004 State Assembly elections, it produced nine MLAs. Its partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had 20. By 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the picture had changed. The Sena has taken a lead in 17 of the 62 segments, a marked spurt, while the BJP, which had 20 MLAs, dropped its segment share to 14. In the Savner and Kamthi segments, the Sena is trailing the Congress by a wafer-thin margin of 3000-plus and 1000-plus votes.

The farm crisis is another area where the Sena scores a point over others, notably in the cotton-growing districts of Buldhana, Yavatmal, Washim, and Akola.

Wardha is the only exception where Congress MP Datta Meghe rules the roost.

Says Vijay Jawandia, a farmers leader, “The Sena is taking village problems seriously. They are going to have some trustworthiness in the villages. [Sena executive president] Uddhav Thackeray has been touring the region. While he may not understand the issues, he is touching people’s sentiments.”

In 2005, Sena MLA Gulabrao Gawande had attempted to immolate himself and consume poison on the floor of the Assembly to highlight the plight of farmers. In 2007, senior Sena leader and MLC Diwakar Rawte had organised a march to demand a loan-waiver for the farmers.

“He walked with the farmers, thus making an emotional connection and giving moral support,” says Sudhir Kovhar, the party’s district lead in Washim.

Building an appeal

Building an appeal came easily for the Sena when it entered Vidarbha in 1990, from Buldhana. According to Raju Mishra, author of ‘Janadesh,’ a book on Vidarbha’s politics, “The independents account for up to 35 per cent of the non-Congress, non-BJP votes. This 35 per cent of floating vote base shifted to the Sena after 1995. People started sporting saffron dupattas. With their aggressive agenda, the Sena provided an attractive option, especially to the youths. It also provided an alternative for those who could not break into the political scene, given the Congress candidates long-standing dominance.”

“The Sena spread its wings in Buldhana and Akola, also moving to establish a base in Amravati. Even the Dalits in Varhad or western Vidarbha are moving to the Sena,” observes Mr. Mishra.

The proportion of the Ghatole Kunbi community, having affiliation to the saffron parties, is more in Washim and Akola.

On the other hand, the Republican Left Democratic Front (RLDF) is seen to affect the Congress more than the Sena-BJP.

The rebel factor, which plagues the Congress-NCP, is not the bane of the saffron combine in Vidarbha.

However, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) may dull the Sena’s edge. Raj Thackeray’s workers have started canvassing a month ago in the Sena’s bastion Washim.