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Want Modi in Delhi, will vote for Chavan

If some constituencies are feeling a “Modi wave” and some resisting it, Nanded is doing both.

Many here say they do want Narendra Modi as Prime Minister but will vote for Congress candidate and former chief minister Ashok Chavan, who remains popular among the poor despite facing corruption charges.

In a way, Chavan has done to Modi in a small way what Modi has done to many non-BJP candidates this election --- cause a conflict in voters’ minds to lure away votes that might have gone the other way.

A cross-section of people in Nanded told The Telegraph they do want a “change” but only in Delhi.

“Chavan gave us a home to live in; how can we bring him down?” auto-rickshaw driver Santosh Dhondkar said.

Dhondkar belongs to the impoverished Matang community, the lowest among the Dalits, and had always lived in a shanty. But during Chavan’s tenure as chief minister (2008 to 2010), he got a 400sqft, two-room tenement under a state-wide welfare programme that was implemented particularly thoroughly in Nanded.

“Else, we could never have dreamt of a home in Nanded,” he said.

Chavan has been indicted by a judicial commission in the Adarsh scam and accused of making personal gains from it. The Supreme Court is close to giving its verdict on a paid-news case involving him.

So, the Congress’s decision to field him has brought much flak from the Opposition. A few days ago, Modi had come here and said the corrupt belonged in jail.

“Who isn’t corrupt?” asked Dhondkar, who has no political affiliations. “Chavan is the only man who can bring development here. Had the Congress fielded any other candidate, we might have voted differently.”

A senior Congress leader said the party had considered various alternatives, including Chavan’s brother-in-law and sitting MP Bhaskar Patil Khatgaonkar and Chavan’s wife, but the popular feedback was negative.

For Chavan, sidelined since the corruption charges forced him to quit as chief minister, his first Lok Sabha contest is his best chance to revive his career even if it means leaving state politics.

“I’m not bothered (by the corruption charges),” Chavan says. “These are baseless and motivated. The people are with me.”

A town’s debt

Chavan has transformed Nanded, a small but historic town where Guru Gobind Singh consecrated the Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru.

Nanded is home to 12 gurdwaras and one of the five Takhts, or seats of temporal authority, of the Sikh community. The Sachkhand Shri Hazur Abchalnagar Sahib, a shrine on the Godavari’s banks, was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 1830s at the spot where Guru Gobind Singh consecrated the Granth Sahib in 1708.

In 2008, Nanded celebrated the event’s tercentenary on a gigantic scale, attracting over a million Sikh pilgrims. Chavan was the state revenue minister then.

With central and state funds at his command, he gave the town an overnight facelift with an airport, new roads (though much of that remains incomplete) and a renovated promenade along the Godavari. The town made it to the global tourism map.

At Chavan’s party office on Monday, a crowd of Congress workers and supporters surrounded him. He met all of them one by one and assigned responsibilities.

The campaign is much more subdued than the one Chavan ran for the 2009 Assembly polls, marked by a glittery ad blitz and accusations of paid news. He is going door to door and village to village, and addressing corner rallies.

But there is no ad onslaught. “He has learnt his lesson,” an aide said.

BJP candidate D.B. Patil, who defeated Khatgaonkar in 2004, hopes the Modi wave will enable him to “knock down a big tree”. Modi’s rally indeed seems to have given some momentum to the BJP in Marathwada.

People across this arid zone, parched by four successive drought years and battered earlier this year by a rare hailstorm, seem angry with the state’s ruling allies, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). They want a “change” at the Centre.

Chavan acknowledges that his political career is at a crossroads.

“Every election is important, for the party and for the workers. But personally, it is an important election for me because it bears the stamp of backing from my party and the people,” he told this newspaper.

His late father S.B. Chavan had a massive following in the region and his family’s loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhis is well known.

Bigger picture

State Congress sources say Chavan was fielded for two reasons. One, he alone can fill the leadership vacuum the late Vilasrao Deshmukh has left behind in Marathwada. Two, if he can retain the Maratha voters, it will help the party in the Assembly elections later this year too.

“We’ll do very well in Marathwada,” Chavan said.

In neighbouring Hingoli, a young Team Rahul member, Rajeev Satav, faces an uphill task against Shiv Sena MP Subhash Wankhede. Satav is not yet entrenched in regional politics and Chavan does not see him as an immediate threat despite the younger man’s direct line to Rahul.

Party sources say Chavan has been asked to ensure Satav’s victory and has been campaigning for him.

Apart from Nanded, the Congress faces tough battles in each of Marathwada’s seven other seats.

In Beed, for instance, BJP senior Gopinath Munde is expanding his base despite a rebellion ---- his nephew has crossed over to the NCP. Munde is also trying to grab the space left behind by Vilasrao, whose son Amit, MLA from Latur, is not yet well-connected with the grass-roots.

For the Congress, a Chavan victory from Nanded would not be good enough. It wants him to deliver a bigger swathe of Marathwada.

Nanded and five other Marathwada constituencies vote on April 17