NAGPUR, Maharashtra: Around five months ago, a former member of the Maharashtra legislative council and a friend of Union minister Nitin Gadkari gave him some unexpected advice: don’t contest the Lok Sabha election from the Nagpur parliamentary seat.
Gadkari was taken aback—he had won from this seat in 2014 with a thumping majority of more than 2,84,000 votes. His cryptic comments at various public events had also been giving rise to speculation that he would not be averse to challenging Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister in case the BJP fell short of a majority in the general election. (Both Gadkari’s hints and these rumors picked up pace after the BJP lost assembly elections in three crucial states in December, so much so that the party had to send an emissary to counsel him.)
The road transport and highways minister reassured the former MLC, who told Gadkari firmly that he would lose the election if he banked on Nagpur, saying he would “manage to win”.
Gadkari’s well-wisher’s assessment was based on two factors: one, Prafulla Gudadhe, the four-term Congress councillor who is being considered a frontrunner for the party’s ticket, and two, the caste equations governing electoral choices in the city where the RSS is headquartered.
“If the Congress fields Prafulla (Gudadhe) against Nitin (Gadkari), Nitin will lose this election,” this former MLC told this reporter and some others in Nagpur last month.
The BJP has won the Nagpur Lok Sabha seat just once before Gadkari’s win in 2014, the peak of the so-called Modi wave. That was 22 years ago, in 1996.
The 2014 election was also a first for the seasoned Maharashtrian politician considered close to the RSS—it was the first direct election he had won.
Who is Prafulla Gudadhe?
Gudadhe, who is from the OBC Kunabi constituency which forms the largest chunk of voters in Nagpur, contested against Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in the 2014 assembly election from Nagpur south-east constituency, managing to get 55, 000 votes. Fadnavis won with a margin of 58,000 votes.
The 44-year-old has led multiple protests against the BJP government over the last couple of years and has been a vocal critic of both Gadkari and the party.
Like Gadkari, Gudadhe is also in the construction business and comes from a prominent family.
His father, Vinod Gudadhe, was instrumental in helping the BJP’s rise in the region and had helped consolidate OBC votes behind the saffron party. However, he was humiliated by the BJP despite being the party’s candidate from Nagpur in 1999 Lok Sabha elections. He left BJP to join the Congress in 2000.
“If (Prafulla) Gudadhe is given the ticket, at least there will be a contest on this seat. The victory margin of Gadkari will be reduced. But if anyone else contests from here, it will be an easy win for Gadkari,” said Adarsh Patle, a former Bajrang Dal member who is currently part of the BJP’s youth wing in Nagpur.
Gadkari, a Brahmin, is also pinning his hopes on a constituency where OBC, SC and Muslim voters form more than 80% of the electorate.
Infighting in the Congress
What may affect Gudadhe’s chances the most, however, is the divisions within his own party.
Despite fighting a difficult election against Fadnavis in 2014, Gudadhe was sidelined within the Nagpur unit as he did not get along with the camp of Nagpur Congress president Vikas Thakare.
Thakare remains the president of Nagpur City Congress unit despite loosing back to back elections. He had lost the last municipal election by 3500 votes whereas Gudadhe secured a win for himself and managed to elect a three-member Congress panel from the area where Fadnavis had begun BJP’s campaign.
Even if Gudadhe manages to get the Lok Sabha ticket, his hostile compatriots are likely to be an even bigger challenge to his prospects than taking on Gadkari.
Nana Patole, a former BJP MP who joined the Congress a year ago, has also thrown his hat in the ring.
“The people of Nagpur and the Congress party high command think that Nana Patole should contest from Nagpur,” Umesh Dange, a close associate of Patole, told HuffPost India.
Gudadhe refused to comment for this story.
Some Congress insiders say Thakare and his mentor Vilas Muttemwar have encouraged Patole to contest from the seat as a means of reining in Gudadhe.
Patole also comes from Kunbi caste, however, his sub-caste is Zade-Kunbi which is a minority in Nagpur Lok Sabha which is dominated by Tirale Kunbi sub-caste to which Gudadhe belongs. The Dalit votes might also move away from Congress if Patole is fielded from this seat as he had openly backed the accused in the infamous Khairlanji Dalit massacre in 2006.
“There has been a change at the central level in our party but at ground level, the party is still being controlled by old leaders who want to establish their kids in their place but are scared of any young emerging leaders. Allowing Gudadhe to contest will pave the way for new leadership in the Congress and politics of Nagpur affects the entire Vidarbha region, which explains the old generation’s uneasiness with Gudadhe,” a former Congress minister opined.
Thakare could not be reached for his comments.
Prakash Ambedkar, head of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, has also alleged that the Congress is trying to put up a weak candidate from Nagpur to make things easier for Gadkari.
Both the BJP and Congress have denied Ambedkar’s allegations.