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New-voter riddle for Vidarbha

Vidarbha, the eastern Maharashtra region notorious for peasant suicides, is witnessing the most unpredictable election ever, say political analysts.

More than 17 million voters, with over a million first-timers, will signal a trend that may change political equations in this state, which holds its Assembly polls later this year. Each of the 10 Lok Sabha constituencies has 1.5-1.85 million voters. Many new voters are migrants from different parts of the country.

The question is: will the voters come out in large numbers to cast a ballot in the sweltering heat of this dry-land region? Last time, barely 46 per cent did.

Even a 10 percentage point rise in turnout would mean roughly 1.5 lakh additional voters in each seat compared to 2009.

“That will upset all calculations,” says Raju Mishra, a former journalist and analyst who has followed the elections in Vidarbha for over three decades. “It is difficult to assess how the new voters will behave.”

This might apply to the rest of Maharashtra, even the entire country, given that a high voter turnout in five state elections last November meant a decisive verdict, except for New Delhi.

“Even if one is to go by traditional equations, there is a tough fight in every constituency,” Mishra says.

For one, the BJP-Shiv Sena has momentum in its favour, built by a sustained campaign by Narendra Modi and a strong noticeable anti-Congress sentiment among the voters.

But polarisation of a section of Dalits, mostly Ambedkarites or neo-Buddhists, and Muslims in favour of the Congress would offset anti-party sentiment. Many leaders from the Ambedkarites, who once backed the Republican Party of India (RPI) before it disintegrated and lost significance, believe this election is a fight between differing ideologies.

“In such a situation, Ambedkarites will side with the Congress in a national election,” says Vilas Wahane, a member of an active Dalit group in Nagpur. “In Assembly elections, they may vote very differently.”

Ambedkarites comprise 7.5 per cent of the population in Maharashtra and are concentrated in Vidarbha. In seats like Nagpur, Bhandara-Gondia and Amravati, they comprise 15-20 per cent of the voters. The Bahujan Samaj Party has made significant inroads in Vidarbha, filling the vacuum left by the RPI. With a sizeable section of Dalits and OBCs voting for its candidates, it will cut Congress votes more than that of the BJP.

In the dusty countryside of Vidarbha, the voter sounds disillusioned with the UPA to a varying degree. But it is difficult to gauge if the anger has reached a tipping point when the voter would tilt decisively towards the BJP-Sena alliance.

In election after election in Maharashtra, trends suggest that the vote share of the Congress-NCP combine has reduced, but the Opposition vote has got even more fragmented.

In the 2009 elections, the Congress-NCP and the BJP-Shiv Sena alliances had won five seats each in Vidarbha. This time, the Congress-NCP candidates face a double anti-incumbency — one arising from the UPA tenure, the other from the 15 years of alliance rule in Maharashtra. A number of factors is interlocked with each other: from caste-equations to actual poll management.

The BJP-Sena is banking on a so-called Modi wave that looks absent on the ground; the Congress-NCP is relying on its experience, striking the right arithmetic locally to taper off the anti-incumbency.

Here are a few constituencies witnessing a straight fight:

Union heavy industries minister Praful Patel is locked in a close fight with Congress-turned-BJP leader and sitting MLC Nana Patole in Bhandara-Gondia;

Congress general secretary Mukul Wasnik is facing an uphill task against Congress-turned-Shiv Sena leader Krupal Tumane in Ramtek;

BJP’s Nitin Gadkari is locked in a direct fight with seven-time Congress MP Vilas Muttewmar in Nagpur;

Congress veteran Datta Meghe’s son Sagar is in the fray for the first time from his home constituency of Wardha against a BJP veteran, Ramdas Tadas.

Three constituencies are witnessing a triangular fight:

In Chandrapur, sitting BJP MP Hansraj Ahir, who broke the coal scam, is facing a challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party’s Wamanrao Chatap and Congress’s Sanjay Deotale. Chatap is a former leader of the Peasants and Workers’ Party. Deotale is a minister in the Prithviraj Chavan cabinet. Both are OBC faces;

In Akola, sitting BJP MP Sanjay Dhotre, Congress’s Hidayat Patel, and Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of B.R. Ambedkar, are locked in a fight. Ambdekar is a former MP from Akola and leader of the Bharatiya Republican Party-Bahujan Mahasangh, which claims to have brought together the OBCs-minorities-Dalits in Akola much before the BSP’s social engineering in Uttar Pradesh in the last decade;

In Amravati, NCP’s Navneet Rana, a former actor and wife of a sitting Independent MLA Ravi Rana, is challenging sitting MP and Sena veteran Anandrao Adsul. An Independent, Rajendra Gavai, has thrown his hat into the fray. Gavai is the leader of an RPI faction and son of former MP and former Kerala governor, R.S. Gavai.

Political pundits say BJP-Sena candidates have an edge wherever there is a triangular contest, but in a straight fight, the outcome depends on percentage of polling and caste equations.