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History not with Gadkari

Gadkari and Muttemwar in Nagpur on Tuesday. (PTI)

Nagpur, April 8: Nitin Jairam Gadkari has three main rivals and an intangible adversary that takes no sides.

History is against the former chief of the BJP, which has won only once from Nagpur, the second capital of Maharashtra and the headquarters of the RSS.

That was in 1996, when the NDA had come to power on the promise of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

On Sunday, the BJP leader released his manifesto for the city: among other things, he has promised to strive for statehood for Vidarbha and build cement roads that would lower pollution in Nagpur.

The first promise will rub his party’s alliance partner, the Shiv Sena, the wrong way. The Sena is for a unified Maharashtra. The second was made before the 2012 municipal elections that his party won.

It’s a do-or-die battle for one of the RSS’s favourite swayamsevaks and Gadkari’s team feels it has left no stone unturned for his first Lok Sabha election, although there has been no rally by Narendra Modi in Nagpur.

Gadkari’s poll managers say they consider Nagpur a “safe seat”, so the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate may have preferred tougher constituencies in the region to work his appeal.

According to analysts, Gadkari’s carefully built reputation as a performer, a huge number of first-time voters and a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress are some of his biggest advantages. Plus, four of Nagpur’s six Assembly segments have BJP-Sena legislators.

Even then, the battle looks tough. Vilas Muttemwar, the sitting Congress MP, is no pushover. A seven-time MP, he has bucked anti-incumbency in four consecutive elections from Nagpur, though the fight was close last time. Muttemwar had won by around 26,000 votes.

Gadkari’s other main rivals are the BSP’s Mohan Gaikwad and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Anjali Damania.

Anil Sole, Nagpur’s mayor and a staunch Gadkari aide, predicts Muttemwar will lose. “People have seen Gadkari’s work when he was a PWD minister…. They will vote for development.”

Muttemwar is a master at weaving local equations. He enjoys the support of all communities, particularly among sections of OBCs, Dalits and Muslims.

Of the 18.5 lakh voters in the constituency, nearly 7 lakh are Dalits and Muslims who have always voted strategically against the BJP. Some 7.5 lakh are OBCs who are split between the BJP and the Congress. The rest are from the upper castes and other religious minorities.

Since the 2009 elections, Nagpur’s electorate has grown by 1.5 lakh, mostly first-time voters and migrants from Chhattisgarh and surrounding districts of the region.

Gadkari’s managers say a section of the Dalits and Muslims would vote for him, given his work among them, but analysts say that’s a remote possibility. Nagpur’s Dalits are mostly the neo-Buddhists or Ambedkarites, ideologically anti-Sangh parivar.

The polarised nature of this election is pushing the Republicans — a highly organised and politically educated community — close to the Congress.

About a fortnight ago, Nagarjun Bhante Surai Sasai, a leading Buddhist religious leader with a considerable clout among Ambedkarites, had released a two-page pamphlet supporting Muttemwar. It was a “battle of ideologies”, he told The Telegraph.

The Buddhist monk has a good rapport with Muttemwar, but his explicit support came after Yoga exponent Baba Ramdev openly canvassed for Gadkari in Nagpur.

Nagpur votes on April 10