The seven Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra that go to polls in the first phase on 11 April are key to gauging the impact of agrarian issues facing the country on the prospects of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre.
All the seven seats are in Vidarbha, one of the main regions of rural distress in Maharashtra, and were won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance in 2014. The constituencies include Nagpur, from where BJP stalwart Nitin Gadkari is seeking re-election against Congress nominee and former BJP MP Nana Patole, and Chandrapur where Union minister of state Hansraj Ahir of the BJP is contesting. The other seats are Wardha, Yavatmal-Washim, Bhandara-Gondiya, Gadchioli-Chimur, and Ramtek. There are three more seats in Vidarbha, Amravati, Buldhana and Akola, which go to polls in the second phase on 18 April. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and his BJP counterpart Amit Shah have campaigned in Vidarbha for the first phase of polling.
The contest in Nagpur is significant as Gadkari had his maiden victory in a direct election in 2014, when he contested from that constituency as the BJP stalwart. With his image of a development-oriented politician, Gadkari, who has this time campaigned on the theme of his “job-oriented development model" and transformation of Nagpur into a logistical and IT hub, had an early advantage.
However, Patole has been able to raise the profile of the contest by largely restricting Gadkari to Nagpur and thus making it difficult for him to campaign for other candidates in the Vidarbha region. Patole has also campaigned energetically and reached out to Dalits, Muslims, and Kunbis who are said to be unhappy with the BJP.
In Chandrapur, Ahir faces a stiff challenge from Congress candidate Balu Dhanorkar who switched over to the Congress from the Shiv Sena. Ahir is a four-time MP from Chandrapur, but Dhanorkar had gained popularity in the district as a Shiv Sena MLA . Gandhi also upped the ante by addressing a well-attended public meeting while campaigning for Dhanorkar, while Shah cancelled a rally in Chandrapur at the last minute, leading to concerns in the local BJP camp. Wardha and Yavatmal-Washim constituencies are also part of the farm distress landscape in Maharashtra. Modi had launched his Maharashtra campaign from Wardha on 1 April and addressed a public meeting in Gondia on 3 April. In Wardha, the BJP has fielded sitting MP Ramdas Tadas, who won by a margin of more than 2 lakh votes in 2014. The Congress has fielded Charulata Tokas.
The Wardha contest is significant for the BJP as in 2014 Modi, during a chai pe charcha session, had spoken with farmers and promised them a minimum support price (MSP) for farm produce that would incorporate 50% profit over and above the declared MSP.
In 2014, Shiv Sena’s Bhavana Gawali had won from Yavatmal-Washim by nearly 91,000 votes. Gawali has been nominated again by the Shiv Sena against Manikrao Thakare of the Congress. Apart from issues of agrarian distress, the Shiv Sena nominee also faces serious internal factionalism. The BJP faces a tough challenge in Bhandara-Gondia, the seat Patole had won in 2014 but which the BJP lost to the Nationalist Congress Party in a 2018 bypoll after Patole joined Congress. The BJP has fielded Sunil Mendhe against the NCP’s Nana Panchbuddhe here.