Every tribe, every sub-caste here is in the rat race for a share in the pie. Khandesh, too, is seeking its pound of flesh.
After jilting the Congress — and giving the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance a huge win in this year’s general election — Khandesh, which loosely comprises the districts of Jalgaon, Dhule and Nandurbar, wants a chief minister.
“Marathwada and western Maharashtra have given Maharashtra most of its chief ministers. They have reaped the benefits, too. And though we stayed loyal to the Congress, big-ticket development eluded us. Today, most people here are upbeat about Narendra Modi. We will vote BJP, but we want a chief minister from here,” says Vikas Hari Badhe, a banana farmer from Nashirabad in Jalgaon (Rural) constituency.
Aware of the local aspirations, the BJP has held out a carrot — the party has not put up any chief ministerial face for Wednesday’s elections.
Result: several hopefuls.
One of them is six-time MLA and two-time minister Eknath Khadse, 62, of Jalgaon.
Although a strong contender, Khadse — leader of Opposition in the just-dissolved Assembly — is not a frontrunner like the much younger Devendra Fadnavis, 42. Yet, at every rally and street-corner meeting, he has projected himself as Maharashtra’s next chief minister.
“I am not putting myself out there to embarrass my party but people here have aspirations — the CM projection works and will get us the votes,” he says. “What happens later, we will see.”
Driving down to Jalgaon city after addressing a rally in the Muslim-dominated Nashirabad area of Jalgaon (Rural), he is forthright about his ambitions.
“I am the only big leader with a mass base of this stature in the Maharashtra BJP today. I come from the grassroots. If the party does not repeat the mistakes of the Congress, it will have to give prominence to its grassroots leaders who have an ear to the ground and have made sacrifices for the party,” he says.
That is the plank on which he is leading his party’s campaign in the constituencies of Jalgaon and the adjoining districts of Dhule and Nandurbar. The last one counts among the poorest districts of India, with over 70 per cent people living below the poverty line.
Jalgaon (11 seats), Dhule (5) and Nandurbar (4) together account for the 20 constituencies of Khandesh. Nashik (15) and Ahmednagar (12) account for the remaining 27 seats in north Maharashtra.
Khadse is clearly the BJP’s satrap in Khandesh. A backward-caste leader, he is a farmer’s son and has climbed up the political ladder since he was elected the sarpanch of his village in 1987.
The two other influential leaders of Jalgaon district — the Shiv Sena’s Sureshdada Jain (Jalgaon city) and the NCP’s Gulabrao Deokar (Jalgaon Rural) — are fighting the elections from behind bars, both jailed on corruption-related charges.
“I am not even campaigning in my own constituency, Muktainager. My daughter-in-law is an MP from that area and she is handling the campaign. I am focused on getting north Maharashtra for the BJP. It has been a Congress bastion, but has remained under-developed and poor,” says Khadse.
After the suicide of his only son two years ago, his daughter-in-law Raksha is his political heir. She fought and won her first general election from the area this May.
Although 90 per cent of the Assembly segments in Khandesh voted for the BJP alliance in the parliamentary elections, the breakdown of the long partnership with the Sena has made Khadse and his party a bit uncertain about a clean sweep.
Their rival alliance — the Congress-NCP partnership — has also broken up.
“Suddenly, the field is open and it can be anybody’s game. Not just the Sena, the NCP, which got seven out of the 20 seats in Khandesh in the last Assembly elections (2009), is also breathing down the neck,” says a top BJP leader in the state.
So there is a concerted effort to rake in the Muslim votes.
“Khandesh is not Uttar Pradesh — religious polarisation does not work here — but caste matters. People want an end to the crushing poverty and the youths have aspirations. The pressure is tremendous,” Khadse concedes.
He speaks of “development and poverty” at every rally and street-corner meeting.
“Do you want me to be the first chief minister from Khandesh? I am a farmer’s son. I know what you suffer, what you want. I come from a poor village here like you. Do you want your voice heard? Then vote for me and vote BJP in every constituency of Jalgaon,” he thunders in an electrifying speech at Jalgaon’s Subhash Chowk, where he has addressed a massive rally in every election he has won so far.
The crowds call out “Natha bhau... Natha bhau” (divine brother), the name by which local residents refer to Khadse.
“I deeply believe in divine providence. I go to Kalighat in Calcutta once a year. I go by the morning flight, pray at the temple and return by an afternoon flight. I have done this for the past 30 years. This year’s trip to Kalighat is due,” says Khadse.
What if he does not become chief minister? What if the BJP does not fare well?
“God helps those who help themselves,” he says. “People are not playthings. Their aspirations should not be undermined.”
-The Telegraph, Calcutta