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Wife sits the test, saheb loses sleep
- Shinde stressed out on eve of Ujjwala baptism

Solapur, April 19: The Congress has its eyes on Solapur and Maharashtra chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde his heart.

The stakes couldn’t get any higher for either the party or Shinde. The Congress is spoiling for a fight after last year’s shock defeat at Solapur, a seat it lost after Shinde vacated it en route to the chief minister’s office.

For Shinde himself, the run-up to tomorrow’s poll has been agonising. His wife Ujjwala has crossed the threshold of the home and kitchen — where she loves to cook crab for him — and entered the tough world of electoral politics. The chief minister may be anxious for a Congress victory at Solapur, but is equally “worried’’ about his wife.

“He did not work so hard even when he was fighting the elections,’’ a party leader at Shinde’s plush marble and mahogany house here says. “Sir wouldn’t like to see Ujjwalaji lose not just because she is, in a way, fighting his battle, but because he has always seen to it that she is happy. He would be extremely upset if…”

At 10.30 at night, Shinde is so exhausted that he can barely speak. Between frequent yawns, he says: “I’ll take the interview, let her sleep. She must be very tired.’’ He himself has slept for just three hours — hitting the bed at 2.30 am and getting up at 5.30 am — but would rather let Ujjwala rest.

Shinde admits the Solapur loss hit him badly. No one had expected that the seat he had held for two terms could be snatched away by the BJP, with a margin of more than a lakh votes. The loss left him and the party cadre red-faced in front of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

“We should not have lost Solapur,’’ he says, his voice sounding very tired. “There were a lot of things at play, things that can only be said off the record. The bottom line is that it came at a bad time and we will have to do our best to wrest it back.’’

Much as he would have liked, Shinde could not give much time to Ujjwala’s campaign till the last few days. He has been overseeing the poll process in the rest of the state and campaigning for others. Being the chief minister, he also takes along administrative work wherever he goes. “I have been on her (Ujjwala’s) campaign only on and off. A few hours here and there,” he says.

The Solapur election story has seen more turns and intrigues than a Ram Gopal Verma thriller. First, the Congress lost Shinde’s seat to Pratapsinh Mohite, who is the brother of the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine’s deputy chief minister Vijaysinh Mohite Patil. Then, just as the Congress had almost given up on the fight, Ujjwala’s name came up and Pratapsinh mysteriously refused to fight.

Though he would not provide any answers, speculation was rife that NCP chief Sharad Pawar exerted pressure on Patil, a senior party leader, to ask his brother to step down. Pawar was clear that he did not want the recent alliance with the Congress undermined.

Ujjwala knows how important this fight is for her husband and his party. “I am working for saheb, I am not campaigning for myself,’’ she says. “My win is his win.’’ Helping mother in her first political battle is Praniti, a law student in Mumbai. Ujjwala’s other daughters Smriti and Priti have also pitched in, going to villages and asking votes for their mother, often from door to door.

“Though I have been working for the Congress and campaigning for the party since the last 10 years, this is the first time I am personally in the fray,’’ she says. “Of course, there is a bit of tension and nervousness but I should get through. What do you say'”

The worries of the Shinde family and the Congress have only increased with the BJP opponent Subhash Deshmukh turning out to be a fighter and a moneyed one at that. “Earlier, I was dismissed as a weak candidate, but I think I have a fair chance,’’ Deshmukh, a former BJP legislative council member, said.

Deshmukh’s rise as a businessman has been phenomenal. In the last decade, he has set up a super bazaar, a transport company, agro industries, a medical research and development centre, dairy farms, sugar mills and even a cooperative bank.

When three sugar mills shut down recently, Deshmukh embarrassed Shinde by writing an open letter to him offering to run the sick units. “But Shindeji lied to people and said he never received the letter from me,” he says.

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