Setting aside the appreciation by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi for Union minister Nitin Gadkari for work undertaken by his ministry, the grand old party is all set to take on the Maharashtra strongman in the RSS bastion of Nagpur. The Congress has vowed payback for the devastating defeat it saw in the 2014 general elections.
The Congress could sidestep ticket hopefuls from the already divided local unit, and just field an outsider to take on Gadkari, a report by the Indian Express mentions. The move would be aimed at giving Gadkari a tough run in the coming Lok Sabha elections and also quell any chances of infighting in its own ranks.
“Against the fantastic speculation about Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s ‘bonhomie’ with Nitin Gadkari leading the party aiding him in emerging as a challenger to Narendra Modi for the prime minister’s post, Congress would, in fact, have a strong outside candidate to take on him,” a top Congress leader told the Indian Express.
Contesting his first Lok Sabha elections back in 2014, Gadkari, who has been a steadfast RSS worker, had beaten Congress’ seven-time MP Vilas Muttemwar in Nagpur by over 2.85 lakh votes. Muttemwar had conquered Nagpur seat four out of seven times he contested. Gadkari’s win was attributed largely to the Modi wave at the time. In 2019, the current Minister of Road Transport and Highways of India continues to have RSS support and is probably counting on his sterling performance as a Union minister.
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The Congress party, however, is banking on the dwindling popularity of Modi besides the seat’s community and caste combinations working in the party’s favour.
A senior local leader, who has been working with Gadkari for a long time, told The Indian Express that unlike 2014, the going could be tough for Gadkari this time around. “Combined, there happens to be nearly eight lakh Dalit and Muslim votes in addition to that, there are two lakh Halba (a weaver community) votes and around 40,000 Dhangar votes. The Halbas community had voted for Gadkari in large numbers in last election.” This, he said, could change with people vowing to “teach BJP a lesson”.
The leader also noted that the 2014 BJP victory was only the second time the Congress party lost the Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency.
“Even post the Emergency, the late Jambuwantrao Dhote had won from here. It has only been twice that the BJP has won; the first time was when it rode the Ram temple wave back in 1996, leading Banwarilal Purohit to victory, and now in 2014.”
Nonetheless, the recent air strikes against Pakistan by the Indian Air Force have managed to change the narrative back in favour of the BJP. The only question is if the momentum that is currently in favour of the Prime Minister will last till polls are held.
What could also work in the BJP’s favour is infighting within the Congress, but the entry of an outside candidate could change all that and more. “Central leaders have told the pugnacious leaders not to fret over the Nagpur seat; the leaders have assured that they will take care of it,” a young Congress leader told the Indian Express.
One of the names making the rounds is Nana Patole, who grabbed headlines when in 2017 he quit as BJP MP from Bhandara-Gondia constituency that also happens to be a part of the Nagpur division. He had criticised Modi’s style of governance and the agrarian crisis under his government. Patole had then joined Congress and was appointed the party’s farmers’ front chief. Nana Patole, who has stated that he was ready to contest against Gadkari, has recently met the former Nagpur MP, Muttemwar, to seek his backing, as per a senior Congress leader.
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On being prompted about it, Muttemwar stated, “Patole had come just as others come and there was nothing about polls as such. While my name is also under consideration, however whoever the party confirms as candidate will definitely get support.”
Besides the Muslim-Dalit-Halba-Dhangar combination, Patole, who is a Kunbi, also brings those votes to the Congress fold.
Another probable candidate is Praful Gudadhe, who is also a prominent Kunbi face, having lost to Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis from the Nagpur South-West Assembly constituency with a margin of over 70,000 votes.
Gudadhe is considered as neutral and not belonging to either the contingent led by Muttemwar and his protege, former mayor Vikas Thakre, or that with former ministers Nitin Raut, Anees Ahmed and Satish Chaturvedi.
Gudadhe’s father was a BJP minister during 1995-99 before he quit BJP. He told The Indian Express that he hadn’t reached out to the Congress leadership for a ticket, and added, “It is true that Nitin Gadkari is a very tall leader, however the wave is turning against the BJP everywhere.”