Wearing a crisp white full sleeves shirt and trouser, Sushil Kumar Shinde gets into the window side seat in the middle row of his grey Toyota Fortuner to start a day of hectic election campaign. Though 77, the veteran Congress leader and former Maharashtra chief minister and union home minister looks fresh for another fight. He tells me his voice has turned a bit damp though the typical dry baritone is still there. “You can join me on the campaign trail," he says when pressed for an interview.
The Solapur constituency, famous for its shrines, textiles, and the shengdana chutney (peanuts ground with red chilly), is the southern tip of the landscape that starts from Pune and is enlivened with the rugged Maharashtrian nonvegetarian delicacies. All along this expansive Western-Southern trajectory, every eating place, from the road side eateries to big hotels, sell their spicy stuff—suka mutton (dry mutton), gavran chicken (local, non-broiler chicken), madka mutton (mutton cooked in an earthen pot)—with screaming display boards all along the Mumbai-Bengaluru expressway and the Pune-Solapur highway. Like the rustic non-vegetarian food, elections in this landscape are strictly rugged and non-vegetarian.
At sharp 9.30 am, the old Congress war horse begins canvassing for the constituency number 42 which he has represented thrice before. I follow the leader in a separate car. It is a modest convoy of four vehicles including two police jeeps. The first stop is at a village Kamti on the outskirts of Solapur. But before Shinde’s convoy reaches this place, it takes two brief halts where the contestant is greeted by jubilant Congress party workers. He is given a floral welcome and firecrackers are burst.
A narrow lane in Kamti has been converted into a small pandal where some three hundred people are already waiting for Shinde. Six people speak before Shinde takes the mike. The first speaker named Bhosle guruji, a local Congress worthy, tells voters that they aren’t merely electing an MP but the “future president of India". Shinde does not look impressed but keeps ticking the names on a list to make note of all those who are on stage and he should mention in his speech. Pravin Bhosle of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) describes Shinde as the candidate of Congress-NCP-Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) alliance, a statement that does not surprise anyone in the crowd or on stage. Raj Thackeray’s MNS is not contesting this Lok Sabha election but the party chief has been holding public rallies to make India “Modi and Amit Shah mukt", thus practically helping Congress-NCP. Thackeray addressed one such rally in Solapur also on Tuesday. The next speaker Nirmala Bawikar of NCP says Shinde must be elected so that “Pawar saheb’s government is installed", referring to the NCP chief Sharad Pawar, a good old friend of Shinde. She also tells people to not get impressed by the rival candidate. “Samor koni sadhu sant asel tarihi Shinde sahebaanna nivdun dya (even if there is a spiritual person contesting against him, you must elect Shinde only," in a reference to Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena-Republican Party of India (Athawale) candidate Jaysidheshwar Swami, a local Lingayat community guru known as Maharaj. Solapur is a Scheduled Caste (SC) reserved constituency and Swami belongs to the Jangam caste.
In his speech punctuated with the usual opposition jibes against Modi like his “Hitler-like leadership and insult to Advani", Shinde also makes two substantial points about his other opponents in this constituency. He says he was elected from Solapur in 1998 and 1999 even when the constituency was not reserved for SC. “This means Solapur is a secular constituency which does not fall for the caste or communal appeals. I also got elected in 2009 when the constituency got reserved for SC," he points out. The reference is as much to Jaysidheshwar Swami as it is to the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, an alliance of Prakash Ambedkar, B. R. Ambedkar’s grandson, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and Communist Party of India (Marxist) which has fielded Prakash Ambedkar against Shinde. “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar gave us the greatest constitution in the world that laid foundation for a secular society. It must be hurting Dr. Ambedkar now that his grandson has tied up with a communal party like MIM. What is even more ironic is that the CPM, which does not believe in god, Ishwar, or Allah, has supported this alliance. It is obvious that they are actually in alliance with the BJP," Shinde remarks as he winds up his speech.
Though he is Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar is not called a dynast in the contemporary political sense. But Sujay Vikhe Patil is certainly a dynast and not from the Congress or NCP. It is the BJP which has fielded Sujay, a 37-year-old neurosurgeon from Ahmednagar who left the Congress and joined the BJP in March when the NCP refused to give up the seat for him. His father is a senior Congress leader who was all set to join the BJP at the Modi rally in Ahmednagar on April 12 but had a rethink at the last moment. There are more intriguing family ties in this contest. Sujay’s NCP rival Sangram Jagtap is the son-in-law of BJP MLA from Nevasa-Rahuri constituency Shivajirao Kardile. Exactly a year back, both Kardile and Jagtap were among 31 booked for the murder of two local Shiv Sena leaders. The case is pending in court, mentions Jagtap's affidavit. “Both Kardile and Jagtap are local rowdys. And now, Kardile is supposed to work for Sujay Vikhe Patil since he is BJP candidate even when his rival is Kardile’s son-in-law," says a local hotelier who obviously does not want to be named. But Sujay is apparently popular, as a large crowd waited for his speech on April 12 after Modi had left the venue.
The BJP’s tryst with dynasty continues in Madha in Solapur district, the constituency that Pawar represented from 2009 to 2014 and backed out from the fray in 2019. Here, the BJP candidate has a name longer than the party—Ranjeetsinh Hindurao Naik Nimbalkar, the scion of a local dynasty. Last month, the BJP inducted another local dynast into the party here. Ranjitsinh Mohite Patil, son of the NCP leader and dynast from Akluj in Solapur district, joined the BJP. His father Vijaysinh is likely to follow the son into the BJP on April 17. “They are joining the BJP because of the impending action against their sugar factories for not paying the farmers’ dues," says local journalist Pramod Gosavi. Compared to Nimbalkar, the NCP candidate Sanjay Shinde is more down-to-earth, Gosavi argues. At his grocery shop in Madha’s Indira Gandhi square, Sunil Pawar, when asked about the election trend, gets into a friendly argument with Chetan Shah, another shop owner and apparently a BJP supporter. “What did notebandi (demonetisation) give you", Pawar asks Shah. “Kahi dila nasel pan kahi ghetla pan naahi (it may not have given anything but it did not take anything away as well)," Shah responds.
In Shirur constituency that borders on Pune and Ahmednagar districts, the battle involves a screen Shivaji Maharaj against the Shiv Sena. Marathi television serial actor Amol Kolhe, who has curiously played both Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his son Sambhaji Maharaj in two separate serials, left the Shiv Sena and joined the NCP to contest against the sitting Shiv Sena MP Shivajiao Adhalrao. “Just as the NCP candidate in Ahmednagar has an image problem, Adhalrao has the negative image of a local biggie who is not liked by the industrial and business interests in Shirur-Chakan industrial belt. Women will vote in large numbers for Kolhe because he is popular as Shivaji here," says a local Shiv Sena worker who does not have much faith in his party’s candidate.
But it is the contest in neighbouring Osmanabad in Marathwada that has the ingredients of a political thriller. Here, two scions of two dynasties that have been feuding violently for decades are locked in a fierce face-off. Omraje Nimbalkar, the Shiv Sena-BJP-RPI candidate, is pitted against NCP-Congress’ Rana Jagjitsinh Patil. In 2006, Jagjitsinh’s father and NCP veteran Padmasinh Patil was named as an accused in the murder of Pawanraje Nimbalkar, Omraje’s father. The sons have extended the family feud to the electoral Kurukshetra of 2019.