Nagpur's Kasturchand Park is a formidable ground for any political party or leader to address. But it has rarely let down the Congress or its leadership.
In 2004 when the newly-minted Congress president Sonia Gandhi was being dismissed as a reader rather than leader, veteran leader of the BJP L K Advani took fright two days after her massive gathering at the Kasturchand Park and cancelled his own event for fear that the BJP, in the headquarters of the RSS, would not be able to muster as many people.
That year the constituency was the only one in Vidarbha that voted for the Congress as it did in 2009 (among four others) when, once again, the BJP leadership wisely chose not to risk thin crowds as against the Congress’ full house again.
Yet, in 1980, soon after her debacle following the Emergency when Mrs Indira Gandhi faced a sparse audience on these very grounds and everybody wrote off the Congress again, the party swept all the then 11 seats in the region handing her a resounding victory despite people failing to turn up in droves at the Kasturchand Park.
Nagpur is a cosmopolitan city and the only time it has voted for a blue blooded RSS man is in 2014. Before Union minister Nitin Gadkari, local newspaper baron Banwarilal Purohit, a former Congress minister, briefly enjoyed a stint as a BJP MP. But he was said to have won because of much Congress factionalism that helped to divert party votes his way - something that plagues the Congress even today.
Despite a Modi wave in 2014, the Congress received a full house at the Kasturchand Park, but lost every single seat in Vidarbha.
However, Modi did not dare risk a meeting here during the Lok Sabha polls. He addressed a rally only six months later during campaigning for the Maharashtra assembly polls after the confidence gained from a clean sweep in the Lok Sabha. Yet, neither Vidarbha nor the rest of Maharashtra quite co-operated with the BJP as it had done earlier, and the party fell short of a majority in the assembly.
This year, too, Modi has chosen to skip Nagpur again where Gadkari is up against former BJP MP Nana Patole contesting on a Congress ticket this time round.
Gadkari, not unlike Modi and other BJP leaders elsewhere in the country, has been staring at empty chairs at even corner meetings in the city. So, it was unlikely he or Modi, never mind the friction between them, would risk Kasturchand Park again.
However, all BJP eyes were on Congress president Rahul Gandhi's public meeting on Thursday evening (April 4) and they are full of glee that the narrow roads surrounding Kasturchand Park were not jammed out as at past Congress meetings. Nonetheless, Gandhi had a full house with no empty chairs or patches on the ground, leading Congressmen to now challenge the BJP to organise their own rally at the park and beat the numbers the Congress got without much effort.
But while that bickering continues, the inevitable comparisons have begun from another significant constituency in the Vidarbha region - Wardha, the Karmabhoomi of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave.
Both Modi and Gandhi held their meetings on April 1 and April 5 respectively at the Swawlambi grounds in Wardha. Mischievous cameramen were positioned at the same angles and the empty patches of ground at Modi's rally were choc-a-block with people at Gandhi's four days later.
"This convinces me that the Congress is not doing too badly in this region and has a fighting chance on at least five of the ten seats from here," says one enthusiast who attended both of Gandhi's meetings in Nagpur and Wardha as well as Modi's Wardha rally.
With barely five days to go to polling - both Nagpur and Wardha vote in the first phase on April 11 – while Modi has fallen back on communalism and polarisation of the voters, Gandhi has sharpened his attack on Modi personally. He has pounced upon the shoddy treatment meted out to Advani by the Modi-Shah duo and cleverly positioned himself as a fresh, young leader with the determination to deliver to the country and time on his side to do so.
At Nagpur, for the first time he pressed on Modi's nerve regarding the age factor. Describing Modi as old and tired, he said the man lied because he did not have time on his side. While that is bound to rile Modi even more than labelling him as Chowkidar, the chor, at Wardha Rahul showed up Modi as a violator of Hindu culture and tradition.
“Is there any relationship greater in Hindu culture than that of a guru-shishya?” he asked the crowds. "Look at how shabbily Modi has treated his guru. How he has behaved with Advaniji."
For a party that had been professing to be the custodian of Hindu culture and tradition that was a sharp attack they are unlikely to be able to defend.
And even Advani might wonder why no one in his own party could find the gumption to speak up for him as did Rahul Gandhi, belonging to a family RSS has hated for decades and dismissed as one steeped in an alien culture since the times of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Yet Rahul Gandhi is the one who had the audience nodding at his defence of Hinduism, while Modi’s Hindutva rhetoric left them cold and unmoved.