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Grandmom vs Shivraj Patil

Latur, April 18: A crisp sari wrapped around her, Rupa tai presents a picture of matronly elegance. She may be taking on a top Congress leader for one of the party’s prize seats, but it doesn’t show on her face. “He fell down and cut his cheeks,’’ she says, looking at her grandson fondly as she tries to keep him on her lap. Latur and its seven-time Congress MP, former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, can wait.

A grandmother at 47, Rupa Nilangekar’s entry into politics has been sudden. The daughter-in-law of former Maharashtra chief minister Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar, she got a BJP ticket to fight against Patil some time ago.

Insiders at the house of the aristocratic Nilangekars say Rupa has been bitter since the former chief minister from Nilanga — that’s where the family name comes from — started patronising his second son Ashok and not her husband Diliprao.

The third son, Shirajrao, has steered clear of politics and the family feud.

After her husband’s death in 1999, Rupa started nurturing her two sons for the political battle ahead when the BJP got a whiff of the feud in the family. With no one in sight to pose even a remote challenge to Patil, the BJP latched on to Rupa, who was only too willing to fight someone from her father-in-law’s party.

Moreover, this election would be a training ground for Rupa, who is set to field her elder son Shambaji against his grandfather in Nilanga in the coming Assembly elections. If Nilangekar, revenue minister in the Democratic Front government, doesn’t contest — he’s in his 70s — his son Ashok will.

Comfortably ensconced in her plush home in Latur, Rupa says she shares a good rapport with Patil. “He calls me his daughter. But I don’t think he means it…. If he did, he would leave the Latur seat for me and go to the Rajya Sabha,’’ she says naively. She still needs BJP workers to correct her every time she makes a gaffe.

Ask what she thinks of Sonia Gandhi as a candidate and she relates an apocryphal story. “When she was in Karnataka, she went shopping and saw two mounds of red and green chillies. She asked the shopkeeper their price and when he replied that the dried red chillies were costlier, she told him why don’t you cultivate only the red chillies.”

More worried about her grandson than her adversary, she continues: “He has done nothing for the people. Villagers haven’t seen him in years. Will someone bring the boy inside'”

Patil, just back from a meeting, is not worried about the competition though. An MP since 1980, he says: “Rupa is a good human being… but she is no politician. She has no idea of governance or legislation. She got a BJP ticket three days before nomination ended.’’

As he bids farewell to actors Chunkey Pandey and Namrata Shirodkar, who campaigned for him during the day, he says: “I am not taking anything for granted.”

He is sure the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party will do better in Maharashtra this time and is happy with the NCP’s announcement that it will follow the Congress president’s lead.

“There are lesser hurdles in her path, though there was never an ambiguity in the minds of our party leaders as to who would be Prime Minister if we came to power,’’ he says when asked if the Congress didn’t show enough conviction in projecting Sonia as its prime ministerial candidate.

“That was a gimmick the BJP used. The Congress doesn’t believe in gimmicks,’’ he says firmly as Chunkey’s car disappears from sight.

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