The most watched constituency in Vidarbha is that of Nagpur, the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from where union minister Nitin Gadkari is seeking re-election. Congress leaders believe they have pulled off a masterstroke by fielding Nana Patole against Gadkari.
Patole was a protègè of Gadkari while he was in the BJP and is expected to use all the BJP tricks against that party and turn the tables on Gadkari. But that's not all that pleases the Congress leadership.
Nagpur is uniquely placed in terms of caste combinations, having large number of Kunbis (farmers, a sub-caste of Marathas), Dalits and Muslims who had always prevented the RSS and BJP from making inroads into the city before 2014. There is huge disappointment among these sections, with the BJP today.
They were assiduously wooed by Gadkari personally in 2014 which helped him sweep the polls by a huge margin). The Congress is hoping Patole, a Kunbi and farmers' leader, despite being an outsider with a rural background, will help turn this vote for the party despite Gadkari's formidable reputation as a performer.
“It is not going to be a cakewalk for Gadkari,” says one top Congress leader. “The only drawback Patole faces is lack of funds of which Gadkari has plenty.'
Gadkari has other handicaps though. There is no love lost between him and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, which has led to much factionalism in the BJP as well. Gadkari is countering this by supporting disappointed Congress leaders and factions against Patole. But is that likely to be enough?
According to a senior Congress leader while Gadkari has an advantage over the Congress among the urban voters as a potential prime ministerial candidate, that is precisely the factor that could see him defeated at the polls.
“Modi is making sure of the TINA effect after the poll results. The only two alternatives to him are Gadkari and Rajnath Singh who, too may not win his seat from Lucknow. Amit Shah is no challenge because of his criminal cases that will automatically rule him out for he will be unacceptable to the allies. But Nagpur will get a PM candidate in case the BJP loses too many seats. Hence there is a move, conspiracy theories suggest, within the BJP to ensure that Gadkari loses.