By-polls attract attention only when big names are involved. In Maharashtra’s recent political history, the last by-elections people watched with excitement featured Narayan Rane, the Shiv Sainik-turned-Congressman. It was in 2005 that Rane left the Shiv Sena, and then contested a by-poll in Malvan, Konkan, to crush the Sena’s Parshuram Uprakar by 63,000 votes. Yet another by-poll involving Rane, this time in Mumbai’s Bandra (East), will be watched keenly because it is now make-or-break for him. The Congressman has vowed to put his loss in the 2014 Assembly polls in Kudal (also in Konkan) behind and repeat the Malvan feat.
Rane’s aggression is sharper when he engages Uddhav Thackeray. Six months after a sound drubbing at the hands of the Sena, he has taken the fight straight to Uddhav’s doorstep in Kalanagar (Bandra East), where voting will be held on April 11. In a way, Rane has been fighting multiple battles -- one with the Sena and the other within the Congress. Last year was a bad one for the Ranes -- Nilesh, the elder son, lost the Lok Sabha elections to the Modi wave and then the father lost the Assembly seat he chose to contest in Sindhudurg district. The only solace was that younger son Nitesh managed to win the neighbouring Assembly segment the father had been representing till 2014.
In the Mumbai segment being contested now, the Congress had won (then Kherwadi) before delimitation changed its composition in favour of the Sena, which has won Bandra (East) twice recently. The Sena expects a sympathy wave to ensure a big win for deceased MLA Bala Sawant’s widow, Trupti.
The do-or-die encounter will decide Rane’s political position in the Congress, which, according to him, has denied him what he was promised in the past years. Rane was upset because the Congress did not make him the CM, and then ignored him for spearheading the party in the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. He had taken on the Congress high command and faced suspension from the party for a while when Ashok Chavan was made the CM. Chavan’s appointment as the state Congress chief had angered him recently.
The constituency Bandra (East) has an interesting socio-ethnic composition; of the 2.62 lakh voters, 37% are Marathis, followed closely by Muslims (31%). North Indians (14%), south Indians (6%), Gujarati-Rajasthani (5%), Christians (3%), Punjabis (1%) and others (3%) complete the order. Going by the numbers, Marathi and Muslim votes are expected to decide the results this time, too. In 2014, Muslims shunned the Congress and voted en masse for the AIMIM, taking it to third position behind the Sena (winners) and the BJP (runners-up). Marathis were split between the Sena and BJP, who had broken their alliance a little before the polls.
Anticipating AIMIM’s nuisance value, Rane tried, unsuccessfully, to get it to withdraw from the race. Little wonder, then, that he is now trying to impress upon the 20,000 Muslim voters in Bharat Nagar, Golibar, Naupada and Behrampada that the AIMIM is hand in glove with Sena, and, hence, they must vote for a man who could get their work done by virtue of being ex-CM. Rane is also banking on the undercurrent in the BJP camp that they should not help the Sena in view of its consistent criticism of the state and central governments. This may just encourage Rane’s campaign managers, whose initial estimate puts Rane way ahead of Sawant. The campaigners’ other strength is the Marathis from Konkan, whose proclivity, they think, is towards Rane.
While Rane has opted for a larger-than-life projection of himself in the campaign, Uddhav has gone for a subtle yet effective style in which the campaign revolves around seeking sympathy votes for the widow. The door-to-door approach is being implemented in the party strongholds where the ‘original’ Sainiks spit fire against Rane.
As the campaign gains momentum, many in the Congress are feeling insecure because Rane, if elected, would enjoy an edge over them, and may even get the Opposition leader’s position in the Assembly, as the Congress has promised him. They strongly wish for Rane’s defeat, and, should he win, expect the Congress high command to forget their promise, once again.
The writer is Political Editor of mid-day