THE SUGAR-RICH belt of western Maharashtra, once a bastion of the Congress-NCP, has been witnessing hectic political activity for months now. Even before full-fledged campaigning for the Lok Sabha polls begins, it is becoming increasingly clear that sitting MPs will need to sweat it out to retain their seats.
Of the 12 seats in western Maharashtra, which includes the districts of Pune, Sangli, Satara, Solapur and Ahmednagar, NCP holds four seats, BJP four, Shiv Sena three and Swabhimani Paksha one. Congress drew a blank in the last elections, which happened for first time in the history of the region where sugar barons from the party have reigned supreme over the years. At least two of the 12 sitting candidates are not likely to be nominated this time.
Click for more election news
In 2014, BJP put up an exemplary performance by pocketing Pune, Sangli, Solapur and Ahmednagar constituencies. NCP held on to its strongholds of Solapur, Kolhapur, Satara, Madha and Baramati. Sena has been winning Maval, Shirur and Shirdi seats for a long time. The Hatkanangale seat had gone to Swabhimani Paksha for the second time in a row.
Among the key candidates in western Maharashtra is former Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who will contest from Solapur. Shinde has come out of self-imposed political retirement. Raju Shetti, who heads Swabhimani Paksha - which has been agitating for remunerative prices for farm produce - will seek to retain his seat from Hatkanangle that includes parts of Kolhapur and Sangli districts. The third key candidate is Supriya Sule, seeking third-time election from family fiefdom of Baramati, which was represented by her father Sharad Pawar for nearly 25 years.
Hatkanangle and Satara seats are considered safe for the sitting MPs. In Satara, Chhatrapati Shivaji's descendant Udyanraje Bhosale is considered unchallenged. Even amid the Modi wave in 2014, Udyanraje had won the seat by over 3.5 lakh votes. Currently in NCP, Udyanraje is being wooed by BJP. There is unease in NCP over Udyanraje's style of functioning. However, since NCP does not have a candidate to match his popularity, it has no option but to cling on to Udyanraje, who has been given a go ahead by party chief Sharad Pawar.
Raju Shetti, a farmer leader who has decided to join the Congress-led front, has been in talks with the Congress-NCP. He had demanded three seats, including his own - Hatkanangle. While Hatkanangle has been allotted to him, the decision on at least one more seat, likely to be Sangli, is awaited. He has won Hatkanangle twice with big margins.
In 2014, Sushil Kumar Shinde had suffered the worst humiliation of his career as BJP's Sharad Bansode, a relative non-entity, defeated him by over 1.5 lakh votes. "I will not reveal why I have come out of retirement… But I am sure people of Solapur will elect the right sevak this time," Shinde told The Indian Express.
Bansode, who functions out of Mumbai, said he does not dabble in Solapur politics because there is considerable rivalry between the two BJP ministers. "I do not want to add to the problems and create a bad name for my party." There is anger and resentment among the residents against the "missing MP", which it seems will work in Shinde's favour. BJP is apparently searching for a candidate to take on Shinde.
Baramati is another constituency where the Pawar scion is in for a stiff fight. In 2014, Mahadev Jankar of the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha had created so much noise and voice that Sule was completely put into the shade. In the first six rounds during counting of votes, Jankar was leading over Sule. He ultimately lost but by around 69,000 votes. In 2009, Sule had won the same seat with over 3 lakh votes.
"Yes, I will be in the race again in Baramati," said Jankar, now a minister in Fadnavis government. "Last time, I missed it by small margin. This time, I will surely snatch the seat." Sule said she was not worried. "The voters in Baramati know how much I slog for them. I am already on the job, touring villages and meeting people," she added.
In Pune city seat, sitting MP BJP Anil Shirole is likely to be replaced. While BJP leader Sanjay Kakade has already thrown his hat in the ring, the party has even floated the name of actor Madhuri Dixit. BJP leaders said it will be tough for Shirole to retain the seat as he is considered as a low-key politician "who does not take party's schemes to the people".
In Maval and Shirur, where the Sena has been winning for 15 years now, both sitting MPs Shrirang Barne and Shivajirao Adhalrao-Patil will face stiff challenge from NCP candidates. In Shirur, NCP has roped in popular actor Amar Kolhe of the 'Sambhaji' serial fame. While in Maval, Parth Pawar, son of Ajit Pawar, will be making his poll debut. "This time, we are determined to snatch the seat from Sena," said NCP national spokesperson Nawab Malik.
In Kolhapur, represented by NCP's Dhanjay Mahadik, there is anger among party leaders and workers as Mahadik has been renominated. Congress leaders claimed Congress-NCP and Sena leaders will join hands to defeat Mahadik, who is being accused of doing little for Kolhapur. Mahadik, meanwhile, said that some people refuse to see the kind of development he has brought in.
In Sangli, first-time sitting MP Sanjaykaka Patil is facing heat from within the party. BJP leaders accuse Patil of working in his own interest. Congress has two strong probables - Prateek Patil from Vasantdada Patil family and Sangli city chief Prithviraj Patil. Congress leaders said they are confident of winning back its traditional seat and are opposing any attempt to handover the seat to Raju Shetti's party. "We have left the decision to the party leadership. We are sure that Sangli will remain with us," said a leader.
The Ahmednagar seat, which has been represented by Dilipkumkar Gandhi for three terms, had become a bone of contention between Congress and NCP. Both parties have claimed that they have strong candidates to wrest the seat from BJP. The situation has completely changed now what with Congress leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil's son Sujay Vikhe-Patil joining the BJP. Sujay is likely to be fielded by BJP from Ahmednagar.
In Shirdi, which was won by Sadashiv Lokhande of Sena, Congress is trying to retain its once traditional seat. In 2014, Sadhashiv Lokhande of Sena had won by nearly 2 lakh votes. "Lokhande was lucky to get the ticket last time. Babanrao Gholap's name was finalised, but since he was convicted, Lokhande got the ticket at the last minute. He had only 13 days to campaign," said a Sena leader.
The seat has been allotted to Congress, which has strong contenders in Shrirampur MLA Bhausaheb Kamble and Uttkarsha Rupawate, who is from the family of party stalwart Dadasaheb Rupwate. The seat has also been offered by Congress to Raju Shetti instead of Sangli seat.