Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan holds the record of being the longest serving woman member of the Lower House. She has represented the Indore parliamentary constituency in Madhya Pradesh for eight consecutive terms. But this time, tai, or sister as she is referred to by the voters, will not be contesting.
Mahajan had won from Indore in 2014 with a margin of over 460,000 votes. Without her, it’s a level playing field. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Shankar Lalwani is taking on Congress’ Pankaj Sanghavi, who had lost to Mahajan in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls by over 40,000 votes. For BJP, it is a fight to retain a seat it has held since 1989. For Congress, however, it is an opportunity to defeat the BJP candidate.
“Ti ajatshatru sarkhi aahe (she has no enemies)," Vijay Paranjape, 53, a snack shop owner, said. “Age was a limitation and she exited gracefully. She has blessed the next BJP candidate. It is the party that matters. Naturally, there will be a strong contest and the vote margins will not be as it was during tai’s time." Paranjape is part of Indore’s Maharashtrian community, which comprises a significant chunk of Indore’s electorate and has always stood with Mahajan.
On 5 April, a week before she turned 76, Mahajan wrote a letter to the BJP top brass saying they were free to choose another candidate. “I think there is some dilemma (in the party). So, I announce that I will not contest the Lok Sabha polls. The party can decide freely."
In 2015, the BJP leadership had said that party members aged 75 years or more cannot hold public office. Subsequently, former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani (91), former Union minister Murli Manohar Joshi (85), former Uttarakhand chief minister B.C. Khanduri (84) and former Union minister Kalraj Mishra (77), were not considered for electoral politics.
“An exception could have been made in tai’s case. Representing a constituency eight times is no small achievement. She served as Lok Sabha speaker efficiently. If she had contested, she would have won again by a huge margin," said Ram Singh Malviya, who runs an ironing shop in Indore.
Lalwani is banking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, urging voters to re-elect the “national chowkidaar" during campaigns. “In our party, the organization contests elections, not candidates. Personalities don’t matter. Of course, Sumitra tai is a big leader and has done a lot for Indore. This election is, however, all about bringing Modiji back to the top post and Indore will pave the way for it," Lalwani said during a roadshow in his constituency.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Congress had won only two of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh. A year later, it had added one more to its tally in a by-poll. Last December, it won the state assembly polls. The ongoing general election will be a key test of whether it has the capacity to consolidate the gains further.
The BJP campaign casts Congress’ Sanghavi as a “loser" who has been defeated in parliamentary, assembly and mayoral polls. Sanghavi, on the other hand, boasts of his popularity in Indore, the state’s financial capital.
“The mayoral election was unfairly declared. Yes, I lost to Mahajan in the 1998 pro-BJP wave and I have never denied it. I am a fighter and I have been politically alive in the constituency despite losing, which is very difficult. Everyone knows I am connected to the people in the constituency and I am more popular than the BJP candidate," Congress’ Sanghavi said in an interview at his residence in Indore, just before setting out for his daily campaign.
In 2013, Congress won only one of the eight assembly seats, comprising the Indore Lok Sabha constituency. In the 2018 state polls, Congress and BJP won four of the assembly segments each. Two of the four Congress MLAs from Indore, Jitu Patwari and Tulsiram Silawat, became ministers in the state government.
“Indore is such an interesting seat. It has been represented by people from all parties and backgrounds, including the Communist Party of India. Of late, it has become a BJP bastion, but this time, Congress has its best chance in Indore. Mahajan’s absence is a window that can work in their favour. Kaante ki takkar hai (it will be a close contest)," says Ram Chandra Patel, a farmer from Rangwasa near Indore.