HE'S an unlikely star—a man largely blamed for his party's current state of jaded disunity. But Congress leader Sharad Pawar would like to put that in the past as he signs autographs and talks of revival in the state and a return to power at the Centre. Much of the optimism comes from the woman whose poster is placed on par with that of Mahatma Gandhi, above those of two former prime ministers, her mother-in-law and husband.
Just in case somebody missed the point, local youth Congress workers at the party's roadshow at Shrirampur in western Maharashtra's Kopargaon parliamentary constituency have added a line in the backdrop: "Soniaji aayi hai. Nayi roshni layi hai (Sonia has come. A new dawn is on its way)." As at the elections rallies, he has been addressing across the state, Pawar uses the occasion to take digs at the BJP. "Every time they say 'next time Atal Behari'. But when the time comes Vajpayee is like a bridegroom, at the mandap without a bride. He remains a bachelor boy ." Pawar has also been countering the possible negative impact of Sonia's Italian origins—a key issue in BJP-Sena poll speeches—saying that he would not like to call Vijayaraje Scindia a foreigner. "Though she is from Nepal, a foreign country, I would not like to call her pardesi. She has married into the Gwalior family and, according to our system, is accepted as an Indian," he says at meeting after meeting.
Leaving lesser and local issues to his colleagues, Pawar is carefully projecting the Congress as a party poised to return to power at the Centre. And in time, in the state.He hopes a 4 per cent vote swing in favour of the Congress will improve the party's position in Maharashtra. For this, Pawar is banking on three factors: the psychological push provided by Sonia; a poll pact with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Republication Party of India (RPI) to attract Dalit and minority votes; and disenchantment with the Sena-BJP regime's performance.
The Congress managed only 15 out of 48 seats in the last general election, an all-time low for the party that had not lost an election in the state till the 1995 assembly polls. In fact, the outcome in 1996 was a repetition of the party's performance the year before when it got only 80 out of 288 assembly seats and lost power. In 1996 the BJP took 18 seats and its electoral ally, the Sena 15—together polling about 38 per cent of the popular vote. The Congress, which polled 34.8 per cent of the vote, is now hoping to bridge the gap with Dalit backing and return of Muslim support. Four seats each have been left to the SP (which has given away one seat to the CPI-M) and RPI. Though chances of winning the seats are low, the support of these parties is crucial for the Congress to win other seats.
South Mumbai and Mumbai Northeast are key seats where lack of Muslim and Dalit support changed results in '96. Murli Deora lost South Mumbai by 23, 208 votes—SP fielded a candidate here—and Gurudas Kamat lost the Northeast seat to Pramod Mahajan by a 1.91 lakh margin.RPI leader Ramdas Athavale polled 2.23 lakh votes from this constituency.
This time it is a close fight that is causing anxiety in the saffron ranks. Suddenly, small-time Dalit leaders started filing their nomination in the constituency. Mahajan's brother-in-law, deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde, offered the RPI his post if its four leaders—Ramdas Athavale, Prakash Ambedkar, R.S. Gavai and Jogendra Kawade—withdrew from the contest and backed the BJP-Sena. Kamat is pulling in his own aces. Banwarilal Purohit, BJP MP from Napur who was denied a ticket for his charges of corruption against Mahajan, will campaign in his constituency.
While the Congress is regaining ground in Mumbai and the backward Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, the situation is not so happy in its home base, western Maharashtra. Rebellion is a key factor in the 12 seats in this sugar belt region, till recently the Congress backbone. As Suresh Kalmadi likes to say, "everyone loves a rebel". This may apply to Kalmadi who is running a campaign to retain Pune, this time with a Shiv Sena and BJP-backed independent out-fit, the Pune Vikas Aghadi. At one of his gatherings, scores of youngsters, many of them Muslims, compete to shake his hands and offer help. Muslims account for nearly 10 per cent of Pune's 13.93 lakh electorate. "A lot of it is personal appeal," notes city corporator Rajni Tribhovan.
From the city, which has over two lakh Dalit votes, seven RPI corporators are backing Kalmadi. Over the years, Pune's image has changed from a pensioner's paradise to a fast-growing metropolis—much of the credit or blame is placed at Kalmadi's door. Kalmadi's popularity here is a headache for Pawar who has fielded former MLA Vithal Tupe in an attempt to retain the seat which falls in his home district.
Rebels who switched parties are making the contest difficult in seats like Ichalkaranji, Kolhapur and Satara (Shiv Sena took this seat in 1996). In Ahmednagar, which has 14 sugar co-operatives and is best known as the state's sugar bowl, Congressmen have virtually conceded the fight. Pawar, who has been addressing meetings for Shelke across the constituency, is up against sugar baron Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil whose family pioneered Maharashtra's sugar co-operative movement. Vikhe-Patil, who represented the Congress in Parliament for five consecutive terms from neighbouring Kopargaon, is the Sena's candidate. Says Vikhe-Patil, whose son is a cabinet minister: "The politics of sugar may have kept the Congress in power. But now they are out of power, the sugar industry must play the politics of survival."