For more than a decade, much to the chagrin of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), three-time MP Shivajirao Adhalrao-Patil of the Shiv Sena had virtually no strong political rival in the Shirur Lok Sabha constituency.
But now the NCP, in a canny move, has fielded Marathi television actor Amol Kolhe against Mr. Adhalrao Patil.
Dr. Kolhe, as the NCP-Congress candidate for Shirur, is best known for essaying the roles of the warrior King Chhatrapati Shivaji and especially that of his son, Chhatrapati Sambhaji, in two wildly popular vernacular series that had Marathi-speaking viewers glued to their televisions.
Going by the massive crowds drawn to his campaign rallies in the Shirur Lok Sabha seat, Dr. Kolhe could very well prove to be the NCP’s ‘renaissance man’ in this constituency which goes to polls in the fourth phase on April 29.
In the last two general elections, the NCP’s attempts to dislodge Mr. Adhalrao Patil came a cropper with the Sena leader winning both of them by a thumping majority of more than 1 lakh votes in 2009, and more than 3 lakh votes in 2014.
“Several young voters [in Shirur] are drawn towards Dr. Kolhe’s portrayal of King Sambhaji in the TV series Swarajya Rakshak Sambhaji , especially since the controversial King’s life, often distorted by vernacular chroniclers, has been a flashpoint for heightening social tensions,” observes election watcher, Harshal Lohokare.
He also said that while Dr. Kolhe’s portrayal had certainly ‘rehabilitated’ the maligned reputation of Sambhaji in the eyes of young viewers, it remained to be seen whether the actor would be able to translate his popularity into votes.
The actor, who recently joined the NCP after defecting from the Shiv Sena, is sure to face resentment from Sena activists on grounds that he had ‘betrayed’ the party.
Moreover, some analysts view Dr. Kolhe as a political lightweight in contrast to Mr. Adhalrao Patil, who has cultivated an image of the business oriented, successful social entrepreneur in his three straight terms as an MP, first from the Khed LS seat in 2004 and then twice from the Shirur seat after it was created.
The Shirur constituency boasts of a number of industrial development zones like the Ranjangaon, Chakan and Khed MIDCs (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporations).
Yet, given its significant rural electorate, the promise of restoring the banned bullock cart races, hitherto prohibited by the courts on grounds of cruelty to animals, is a matter advocated by both candidates.
“While I view the re-starting of these races as important for the rural economy, my focus, unlike that of my opponent [Mr. Adhalrao Patil] has been the poor state of infrastructure in Shirur today,” said Dr. Kolhe.
The Shirur LS constituency comprises six Assembly segments - Junnar, Ambegaon, Shirur, Hadapsar, Bhosari and Khed Alandi.
Of these, only Ambegaon is held by the NCP under senior leader and former State Assembly Speaker, Dilip Walse-Patil, while Bhosari, Hadapsar and Shirur are with the BJP and Junnar and Khed Alandi are with the Sena.
According to senior political analyst Rajendra Pandharpure, a crucial factor for Mr. Adhalrao Patil’s win will be the strong undercurrent of support from several sections of the populace here for the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in the State.
“There is considerable goodwill for Mr. Fadnavis here on account of the development work carried through by the BJP government in terms of improving roads and highways. So, quite naturally, there is sentiment even among traditional NCP voters, on the need for the BJP government to return. And for the continuation of this development alone, they may be willing to stand by Mr. Adhalrao Patil,” opines Mr. Pandharpure.
However, he observes that a section of the land-owning community and farmers in the constituency are unhappy with Mr. Adhalrao Patil as the latter failed to bring the Pune Airport project to Khed.
“The land-owning community here thought that had Adhalrao Patil succeeded in getting the Pune Airport project here, their land prices would have soared. But instead, Purandar was chosen as site of the new Pune Airport,” Mr. Pandharpure said.
Shirur has a mix of Maratha and Mali communities, with the latter drifting away from the NCP in the past few years.
Last month, in the heat of campaigning, Mr. Adhalrao Patil, in one of his speeches made an undignified reference to Mr. Kolhe’s caste, saying that NCP chief Sharad Pawar had calculatedly played the caste card by propping a candidate from the Mali community.
“Mr. Adhalrao Patil has alienated the Mali community by this insensitive remark. The community, which had become estranged from the NCP in the last 15 years, will now gravitate en masse towards Dr. Kolhe, much to Adhalrao Patil’s detriment,” opines another local election watcher.
Yet, there are some who think such emotive statements would hardly matter in the final contest, which pits a reel Sambhaji (Dr. Kolhe’s screen role) against a ‘real’ Shivaji (Mr. Adhalrao Patil).