Karad (Satara district, Maharashtra): Karad South constituency of Satara district in western Maharashtra is set to witness one of the most interesting battles of the 2014 state assembly elections. For this is a VIP seat with a distinct political colour.

Former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is returning to the electoral arena after a 15-year gap, is the Congress candidate from this seat. His strongest opponent is seven-time Congress legislator from the constituency, Vilaskaka Undalkar-Patil. After the ruling Congress denied him a ticket, he is standing as an independent candidate, backed by the powerful Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate is a local sugar baron, Atul Bhosale, whose family owes allegiance to the Congress. Finally, the Shiv Sena hopeful is Ajinkya Patil, son of Bihar governor and education baron D.Y. Patil. Ajinkya Patil’s step-brother is Congress legislator Satej Patel, who was minister of state for home and urban development in the Chavan government.

This is a fight between four candidates with deep Congress links—it’s Congress vs Congress vs Congress vs Congress in Karad South, if you like.

The six districts of western Maharashtra—Pune, Ahmadnagar, Satara, Solapur, Kolhapur and Sangli—are all considered to be bastions of the Congress and the NCP. Even when the Congress lost power in the state in 1995, the party managed to win 37 of the 75 assembly seats in these six districts. In 1999, after then Union minister Sharad Pawar parted ways with the Congress and formed the NCP, the two parties together managed to win 54 seats in this region.

“The battle for Karad South is a classic example of how the BJP-Sena cleverly use the faultlines within the Congress for expanding their base in the area where electoral success has eluded them so far," said Vijay Chormare, resident editor of the Kolhapur edition of Marathi daily Maharashtra Times.

One of the main reasons why the Congress and the NCP wield such influence in this region is the existence of a vast network of cooperative institutions—such as sugar cooperatives, milk cooperatives, cooperative banks and educational institutions—that have been built by politicians from these two parties since Independence. Control over cooperatives gives Congress and NCP politicians control over the rural economy, and thus politics.

An encounter from a recent visit to Karad South by a Mint team shows how politicians from the Congress and the NCP exercise control over voters. In a village called Wing, around 10km from Karad town, preparations are underway for a public meeting by BJP candidate Bhosale. An elderly man wearing the BJP’s lotus symbol on his shirt pocket was waiting at the meeting venue. Asked if he was a BJP supporter, he said in a hushed tone: “These people (Bhosale’s supporters) came here and distributed all this campaign material and asked us to come to the venue, so I am here. Otherwise I am (Congress rebel) Undalkar’s voter." Asked why he supports Undalkar, he says: “My family has got a loan from Koyana Cooperative Bank Ltd, which is controlled by Undalkar."

There is history to the feud between Chavan and Undalkar. In the mid-1980s, Chavan’s mother Premalakaki, the local member of Parliament and a central minister, opposed Undalkar’s induction into the state cabinet. The relationship between Prithviraj Chavan and Undalkar remained cold and they worsened after Undalkar’s son Uday was arrested in a murder case in 2012. Undalkar feels Chavan deliberately targeted his family to try and destroy his political career.

Undalkar, who is in his 70s, said: “After Chavan returned from Delhi in 2010 and became chief minister, he asked me to resign as a legislator from Karad South so that he can contest election, but I told him I will do so only if the party high command asks, but the high command never asked for my resignation, so Chavan had to become a member of legislative council (the state Upper House). Holding a grudge against me for my refusal to step down, he unleashed all the administrative might at his disposal and implicated my son in a false case," Undalkar added.

Anand Patil, president of the Satara district Congress and Chavan’s chief campaign manager said: “Allegations levelled by Undalkar are baseless, since he has no other point to make in campaigning, he is trying to make emotional appeal to people by making false charges against Chavan."

However, the Chavan camp is hoping to sail through what others expect to be a tough electoral battle in Karad South. A substantial number of the 286,000 voters in the constituency—around 125,000 voters—live in the two municipal councils of Karad and Malkapur and infrastructure development works in these areas is expected to benefit Chavan.

Anand Patil said: “After Chavan became the chief minister, more than 300 crore was pumped in to improve roads and other civic amenities in Karad and Malkapur. Malkapur now gets 24x7 water supply and reforms carried out by the Malkapur municipality in the water distribution sector are often cited at the national level as the way to go forward for municipal water distribution system."

“And unlike other candidates in the fray, Chavan has a clean image and is known as a man of development and this is our biggest advantage," he added.

A local wholesale trader whose family shares close ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the influential Hindu group that is linked to the BJP—said: “I am in a little dilemma. Chavan is by far the best candidate among all major candidates, but let’s see how things unfold during campaigning."

Bhosale, whose uncle Yashwantrao Mohite was a member of every Congress cabinet between 1960 and 1980, is desperate for a bit of the Modi magic—the wave created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi—to work for him.

Rubbishing the Chavan camp’s claims of development, he said: “All these works have started only in last five-six months. Yes, one can find several foundations stones laid across the constituency, but there is no plaque saying the project has been completed or that it was inaugurated."

“My agenda is development; despite Karad having a good educational base with many private as well as government institutions offering various professional courses, excellent medical facilities, water availability and many other favourable factors, hardly any big industry has come to Karad. All our educated youth have to migrate to Pune and Mumbai in search of jobs," Bhosale added.

Meanwhile, Sena candidate Ajinkya Patil is fighting hard to shake off the tag of being an outsider—and of someone who just takes away other candidates’ votes. “I am a Maharashtrian and every Maharashtrian has a right to contest an election from any part of Maharashtra. Though my family has ties with the Congress, everyone in our family is free to make their own political choices."

Chormare said: “Chavan, Undalkar and Bhosale, all three being stalwarts, it will be very difficult to predict who has the edge, and just like Twenty20 cricket match thrillers, where fortunes keep changing till the last ball is bowled, no one can predict victory till the last vote is counted."

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