The Bharatiya Janata Party's former president Nitin Gadkari is pitted against Congress warhorse Vilas Muttemwar in the Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency in what is likely to be his toughest election battle so far.
It may surprise some that this is Gadkari's first attempt to get elected to the Lok Sabha. On the other hand, Muttemwar has been elected seven times – thrice from Chimur and four times consecutively from Nagpur. Anjali Damania of the Aam Aadmi Party, who has leveled graft charges against the Gadkari, is another formidable rival in a multi-cornered contest that has a total 33 candidates.
The 56-year-old BJP leader has been a member of the state legislative council since 1989 and was also a minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government. In 1985, he failed in his attempt to get elected to the state assembly from Nagpur (West).
Now, Gadkari will be hoping that three decades of development work he has undertaken in the region will get him through. He has made special efforts to help families in the Dalit-Muslim population, which the Congress has relied on for its success till today.
“I have been working in Nagpur for 35 years, going beyond the barriers of caste, creed and religion,” Gadkari says. “When there is a challenge, I always accept it.”
To his credit, he has spent much effort on the construction of better roads in Nagpur. The Mumbai-Pune Expressway was built during his term as state public works minister.
BJP workers believe that Gadkari's move to get Jaitun Bi, a Muslim corporator, elected as deputy mayor, would help to pick up valuable Muslim votes.
Expectedly, the Congress rival is dismissive of the challenge. “Gadkari is contesting the Lok Sabha elections for the first time. He is a soft candidate,” Muttemwar says, while getting a foot massage at his Shankarnagar residence after a grueling padyatra.
Muttemwar has reason to be confident. He was the sole Congress-Nationalist Congress Party nominee to win from the Vidarbha region in 2004. He boasts of getting the multi-modal international cargo hub and airport for Nagpur and the Gosikhurd dam.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has a committed base in the area, has nominated Dr Mohan Gaikwad, a Maratha-Kunbi, as its candidate, and Congressmen expect this would work to their advantage. In 2009, the BSP's Manikrao Vaidya, from the Teli community – a traditional BJP catchment – polled a whopping 1.18 lakh votes, which is said to have helped Muttemwar win the contest.
Some Muslims feel that the Congress could lose some votes to the “AAP ki hawa” as the Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal has been more strident in taking on the BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi.
Damania, the AAP candidate, does not mince words. She made it clear that the BJP is enemy No.1. “After the Congress defeat in Delhi, we consider it a non-existent party,” she told dna while on a tour of Mominpura.
For Raju Godghate, a rickshaw driver, it's inflation that is the big worry. “Gadkari has worked for the city. But the cost of living is our big concern and I doubt whether any government, even headed by the BJP, will bring prices down,” he says.