Family feuds, water wars muddy poll scene in drought-hit Marathwada

Marathwada goes to polls in two phases on April 18 and April 23. BJP is hoping for Prakash Ambedkar and Owaisi to divide opposition votes in the parched region

Family feuds, water wars muddy poll scene in drought-hit Marathwada

Sujata Anandan

When Ravindra Gaikwad, a Shiv Sena MP, had beaten up an airline staffer and was barred from all airlines, Uddhav Thackeray had been put to considerable embarrassment to persuade the union government to have the ban lifted. At the time he had been relentlessly targeting Narendra Modi and did not savour having to ask for a favour.

It had also caused much conflict within his family with the young Aaditya Thackeray of the view that Gaikwad made for bad optics but older Shiv Sainiks appreciating the reassertion of the original style of the party.

Now Gaikwad is the sole sitting MP of the Shiv Sena who has been dropped by the party from Osmanabad as a quid pro quo for the Sena’s insistence on dropping BJP sitting MP Kirit Somaiya from Mumbai North-east.

Somaiya had referred to Uddhav as a ‘mafia don’ at the time, not realising that there were no permanent friends or enemies in politics.

Now Osmanabad has become the most piquant contest in Marathwada with the sons of two political rivals, one dead and the other jailed for his murder, taking on each other from the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party.

In 2009, the seat was won by Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar’s brother-in-law Padamsinh Patil, a former home minister of Maharashtra. Within days of the parliament convening for the first time, Patil was arrested by the CBI for putting out a 'Supari' (contract) on Congress leader Pawanraje Nimbalkar. The Sena has now put up his son Omraje Nimbalkar against Patil's son Rana Jagatjit Singh Patil and the battle is likely to be both fierce and vengeful - Nimbalkar can draw comfort from the thought that if he wins he would have stopped the son of his father's murderer from entering parliament; his own victory would be bitter-sweet for Patil too who has always insisted that his father was wrongly accused and framed in Pawanraje's murder.

There are only two other constituencies from Marathwada, where the contest is less piquant but still holds the potential of making big statements in the victory or defeat of its sitting MPs, one from the Congress and the other from the BJP.

The first is Nanded from where former chief minister and state party president Ashok Chavan is seeking re-election. He had saved the Congress bacon in 2014 by winning with a thumping majority and helped a close aide of Congress president Rahul Gandhi to win by a thin margin of 2000-odd votes from neighbouring Hingoli. Those were the only two seats the Congress won in an otherwise complete wipe-out from Maharashtra in 2014.

Chavan, however, had wanted to run his wife Amrita Chavan from the seat this time but had to give in to his party president’s wishes, given that Rahul Gandhi has vested faith in him despite his embroilment in the Adarsh scam. It is one constituency where the BJP and Narendra Modi have focussed attention - Nanded has a considerable Sikh population which is upset at the BJP's attempt to seize control of its famous gurudwara, a fact that has been a sore point with even its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab.

The other constituency is Beed, where the BJP is running its sitting MP Pritam Munde again. Pritam is the daughter of the late Gopinath Munde and after the unfortunate death of her father in a road accident, won the seat with a landslide margin in the subsequent by-election. But at the time all political parties, including the NCP, had refrained from putting up a candidate against her on sympathetic grounds. Now the NCP is putting all its resources into wresting the seat from the BJP and Pritam is having to deal with her own cousin Dhananjay Munde, leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra legislative council, who has dug in his heels in Beed and is leaving no stone unturned on behalf of his party candidate. The Mundes’ family feud is well-known in the region, with Dhananjay relentlessly targeting and exposing alleged scams by Pritam’s sister Pankaja Munde, who is a minister in the Maharashtra government.

The region is bullish for both alliances - indeed looking at a map of Marathwada, one is reminded of a bull, horns and all, tail up in the air trying to jump across the breadth of Maharashtra. This former territory of the Nizam of Hyderabad has been rather more bullish on the Shiv Sena, and by association with the BJP, for several years now, despite the fact that the Congress and the NCP are parties top-heavy with Marathas.

That t is because of a strategic mistake that Sharad Pawar, as a Congress chief minister, made in 1993 by renaming the Marathwada University after Dr BR Ambedkar. That was a long-standing demand of various Dalit groups but the upper crust Marathas hated to have to send their children to a university named after a Dalit icon, even if he were the architect of the Constitution of India.

The move was bitterly opposed by Bal Thackeray, then supremo of the Shiv Sena, and ever since Maratha sentiment has stayed with the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. The Congress-NCP this time hopes to overturn that sentiment on the basis of the Maratha disappointment with the BJP’s response to reservations to their community which is considered by them as given too little too late.

The third factor in Marathwada is a substantial Muslim population which by and large had been at peace with the other communities until the toxicity introduced into the polity by the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan and his brother-in-law Gopinath Munde, both of whmo hailed from the region, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

Now, according to political observer Abdul Kadeer, BJP president Amit Shah is attempting to revive the poisonous relations between the three communities of Marathas, Dalits and Muslims by bringing together Prakash Ambedkar's Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad Muslimeen in an alliance. Shah obviously hopes that they will cut into the Congress-NCP vote bank of Dalits and Muslims, two communities highly upset with the BJP.

However, Ambedkar does not have much of a resonance in the region despite his grandfather having fought hard against the Nizam of Hyderabad for the annexation of Marathwada to Maharashtra. According to Kadeer, despite its early successes in the region, the AIMIM too might have lost its connect with a large section of the educated Muslim youth who are more concerned about jobs and safety which they know the AIMIM is incapable of providing,

However, in the highly communally charged atmosphere in the region, the three communities may have found a unifying factor - water or the lack of the life-giving resource.

Almost 46 per cent of Marathwada is currently facing a severe drought and, according to Atul Deulgaonkar, a climate change activist, on the edge of "desertification". Twice over. It risks not just turning into a desert but also being deserted by the citizens in return. So, whoever has the resources to bring water to Marathwada stands an edge in the region this election season.

There have been water wars in the ruling party last year- Marathwada has no rivers at all and needs to depend on Western Maharashtra to release water into its singular Jayakwadi dam. BJP corporators from Nashik stopped that water flow this year but the NCP too which has tighter control over western Maharashtra has been part of this denial to the region in the past.

The political waters are thus thoroughly muddied this election season in the scorching heat - both literally and electorally - in Marathwada which continues to see farmers' suicides and large-scale migration of people to the literally greener pastures of Pune and Hyderabad.

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