Former Union social justice minister and senior Congress minister Mukul Wasnik is locked in a keen fight with Shiv Sena candidate Krupal Tumane in the Ramtek Lok Sabha constituency adjoining Nagpur in Vidarbha. Wasnik may be on a weak pitch considering his perceived image of being inaccessible and cut off from voters as against his rival.
The Ramtek constituency has been represented by Congress stalwarts like Krishnarao Deshmukh, Madhavrao Patil and former prime minister PV Narsimha Rao (1984 and 1989). However, in 1999, the Shiv Sena's Subodh Mohite, who later became a Union minister, breached the Congress stronghold and followed it up with another victory in 2004. However, Mohite quit the Sena in 2007 to join the Congress and in the by-election that followed, he was trounced by Sena's Prakash Jadhav. The constituency was reserved for the scheduled castes from 2009.
Ramtek's voters complain that despite Wasnik's national presence, the crucial portfolio which he handled for a while in the cabinet and his perceived closeness to the first family of the Congress, he has been unable to ensure the constituency's development. Shiv Sena supporters claim that in contrast, Tumane, who lost the 2009 elections by a slender margin of just over 16,700 votes, has stayed in touch with constituents, visiting villages to solve problems and even during occasions like marriages.
The contest also has a subtle undercurrent of a battle between a Buddhist Dalit (Wasnik) and Hindu Dalit (Tumane). The Buddhist Dalits, the former Mahars who converted to Buddhism with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, have a substantial presence in the constituency. Though Wasnik, the son of veteran Congressman Balkrishna Wasnik, has managed to get support from Dalit leaders Sulekha Kumbhare, who has a base in nearby Kamthi, and Jogendra Kawade, the presence of the BSP's Kiran Rodage – Patankar, who is a Qawali singer known for her "Bheem Geets" (songs praising Dr Ambedkar), Samajwadi Party's Maya Chaware, AAP's Pratap Goswami and Naresh Patil of the Bahujan Mukti Party, may complicate matters.
"The biggest problem here is unemployment. So, industries are needed. There are few companies here and since, the number of job seekers is large, they get a raw deal," noted Waman Meshram, a resident of the pilgrimage centre of Ramtek, which boasts of a history dating back to the Vakataka dynasty and is famed as the place where Lord Rama stayed in exile and Kalidasa wrote his famous "Meghadoot."
Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna stayed at "Ramgiri" as it was called then and the founder of the Mahanubhav sect – Chakradhar is said to have preached here.
"Ramtek has been neglected by Wasnik in the past five years," charged local Sena functionary Sanjay Zhade, adding that in contrast, there was not a single village in the constituency not visited by Tumane.
"We are also campaigning on rising corruption, inflation, agrarian distress and lack of public contact by the incumbent MP," said the Sena's Suraj Kondawa, adding that the support for the BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, would serve as a force multiplier.
Sitting in the Congress office just a stone's throw away, Congress taluka chief Arun Bansod laughs this off. "The opposition has been able to win just thrice from here. History is on our side... The Sena can only make allegations," he said, adding that Wasnik had worked well for his constituency.
"Those who say Mukul Wasnik has not come to the constituency are blind," he charged, waving a booklet on Wasnik's works, including the expansion of the NTPC's thermal power plant at Mouda, broadguaging of railway lines, the MIHAN and Gosikhurd projects and four-laning of highways and construction of bridges.
Bansode said the MP visited villages regularly and held Janata darbars. His colleague in the Congress, Mahesh Madavi credited Wasnik for working for the tribals who form around 80,000 of the electorate.
"Mukulji is a young but experienced candidate. The lack of co-ordination between Tumane and the BJP will help us. We have been bolstered by the support of Kumbhare and Kawade," said minister of state Rajendra Mulak, who hails from Umred in the constituency.
However, Lata Potbhare, a stall owner outside the Ramtek temple located on a hillock which gives a picturesque view of the Khindshi lake and vicinity, notes that while politicians reach out to voters during elections, promises are made only to be broken. "Today, a number of educated youth are compelled to sell trinkets and snacks in these stalls and earn just around Rs 200 a day. We need a better life," she demanded.
The constituency consists of the six assembly segments of Katol, Saoner, Umred, Kamthi, Hingana and Ramtek. Of these three (Umred. Saoner, Katol) are held by the Congress- NCP and Hingana, Kamthi and Ramtek by the Shiv Sena and BJP.