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Gunshot that propelled a wife to fight husband’s battle

May 1 last year began as an ordinary day in the life of Raksha Khadse, a 26-year-old homemaker and mother of two.

“I was packing for the family vacation to Kashmir — we were due to leave in a couple of days. Then I heard the revolver go off,” she pauses and quietly stares at her hands.

When she resumes speaking, it’s a steady, low drone. She recounts how her husband Nikhil, 36, son of the BJP’s Eknath Khadse, the leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly, shot himself in the head with his revolver that evening.

Raksha is the BJP candidate from Raver constituency in dusty and drought-prone north Maharashtra. She is tipped to win.

A farmer’s daughter who grew up in government hostels before marrying in her teens, she is readying to pack again this year — to go to Parliament.

But before that, she will sit down to a puja on Thursday for her husband’s varshashraddha, the first anniversary of his passing.

“Then I will visit my parents with my children. They live in a quiet hamlet called Kheddigar in Shahada, a small taluka near the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border. I need this time off before the results come. It’s been a very difficult year,” she says.

Her feet heavily bandaged, she has walked miles to campaign with her father-in-law against the Nationalist Congress Party’s Manish Jain — another first-time Lok Sabha candidate.

Their fight is not just political. Manish and Raksha have a history between them.

Way back in November 2010, Nikhil, prodded by his father — a political icon in these parts — had fought the local legislative council polls against Manish, whose father is one of the top jewellers in Maharashtra.

Nikhil had lost to Manish by 16 votes and gone into a depression as his career ran aground and a chronic spinal ailment beat him down. That was what triggered his suicide.

Raksha says Manish’s money power had snatched from her husband not just a victory that should have been his but also his life.

“If I win, it will be my homage to Nikhil though that is not the only reason I’m fighting these elections. As a young widow, I know the desperation that the educated youth in the villages feel at the lack of jobs here,” she says.

“Had I not been the daughter-in-law of Eknath Khadse, what would I have fallen back on after my husband’s death? How would a gilded jeweller like Manish empathise with the misery and desperation of the villagers?” Raksha adds, turning the fight between her and her rival virtually into a class war.

This has been her refrain during her tour of the villages in her constituency, local people say.

Manish, though hailing from a local family, is not a resident of the area. He lives in the posh Mumbai suburb of Khar.

He denies Raksha’s charge that his alleged Rs 200-crore election spend in 2010 bought him the 16-vote margin.

“She is just a canny politician who is trying to reap the advantage of her husband’s death and turning a political fight into a personal one to get sympathy votes,” he alleges.

Raksha is not new to politics, though she had largely stayed in her father-in-law’s shadow and fought “proxy” elections to widen his influence in Raver. She has been a sarpanch and also a member of the local zilla parishad.

“But I never imagined that I would be fighting a Lok Sabha election. I never imagined that my life would take the course that it has,” Raksha says.

“When Nikhil was alive, I looked after my father-in-law’s welfare projects. I was largely focused on rural education. But now that I am here, I have decided to make this my life’s calling.”

Her sister-in-law Sharda Khadse Chaudhury, who has been taking care of Raksha’s daughter Krishika, 6, and son Gurunath, 2, during the campaign, says she has seen her metamorphose in the past one year.

“From a quiet girl, she has become a strong woman. When my mother fell ill immediately after my brother’s death and my father had to undergo a kidney transplant days afterwards, she single-handedly took care not just of the entire constituency on his behalf but also our entire family,” says Sharda, sitting in the family-owned Khadse farm, about 5km from Muktainagar.

Sunil Munde, who works at a petrol pump near the Khadse farm and grows bananas on his half-acre plot nearby, sums up Raksha’s situation.

“A farmer’s mulgi (Marathi for daughter) and a farmer’s sunbai (Marathi for daughter-in-law) — a simple village girl — she has faced an enormous tragedy and seen enormous changes in her young life,” Munde says.

“It has toughened her up, no doubt. But will she use the opportunities that come her way after these elections to lift herself or others up? We are going to give her a chance and see what she does.”

Raver voted on April 24