Mumbai: The Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, struggling to contain the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, is set to face another major test this Saturday — the Pandharpur-Mangalwedha bypoll in Maharashtra’s Solapur district.
The bypoll, necessitated by the death of sitting Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) legislator Bharat Bhalke, is the first assembly seat election after the 2019 state polls, which propelled the MVA government to power.
The byelection is being hotly contested between the NCP, supported by its other MVA allies, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The NCP has fielded Bhalke’s son, Bhagirath Bhalke, while the BJP has fielded Samadhan Autade who had lost the 2019 assembly elections to the older Bhalke.
Both sides have made the poll a high-octane, prestige issue. The NCP has deployed its big guns, Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, party state president Jayant Patil and Baramati MP Supriya Sule, to address campaign rallies. Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis too has been aggressively campaigning in the constituency, even saying, “you topple them in this election, I will topple them in the state”.
First election after MVA’s recent string of controversies
The Pandharpur-Mangalwedha bypoll is also the first major election for the MVA, which comprises the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress, following a recent string of controversies that led to the resignation of two of its cabinet ministers — Anil Deshmukh and Sanjay Rathod — and forced a third, Anil Parab, on the back foot.
Shiv Sena’s Rathod resigned in February after facing allegations of being linked to the death of a TikTok star.
Deshmukh resigned earlier this month after former Mumbai Police chief Param Bir Singh accused him of asking his officers, including suspended policeman Sachin Waze, to collect Rs 100 crore from Mumbai’s bars and restaurants every month.
Later, a purported letter by Waze accused Shiv Sena minister Parab of extorting from a trust to close an inquiry against it, and collecting money from supposedly fraudulent civic contractors.
The BJP has made these events a poll agenda in the Pandharpur-Mangalwedha with former CM Fadnavis regularly using them in his speeches to take a dig at the government.
At a campaign rally in Mangalwedha Monday, Fadnavis said, “Earlier this government was Maha Vikas Aghadi, then it became Maha Vinash Aghadi and now it is Maha Vasooli Aghadi. Now the police are being given targets for hafta vasooli.”
“In a democracy, the right to vote is very important,” he added. “The right to vote this oppressive government out is being first made available to the people of the Pandharpur constituency.”
The bypoll has also coincided with the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic at a time when Maharashtra is reporting nearly 60,000 new cases a day and the Uddhav Thackeray-led government is struggling to provide sufficient hospital beds, oxygen, and the treatment drugs.
Moreover, three days before the election, the state government had to impose a curfew in Maharashtra.
In Pandharpur, a pilgrimage town, the BJP is not only attacking the MVA in its handling of the Covid crisis, but also emphasising how the state government has kept temples and the related economy shut without giving these businesses any relief package, while liquor shops are allowed to conduct business.
The BJP has also slammed senior NCP leaders such as Ajit Pawar and Jayant Patil for allegedly violating Covid-19 norms while addressing crowded campaign rallies for the bypoll.
When questioned about large crowds at BJP rallies too, Fadnavis, speaking to reporters in Pandharpur Tuesday, said, “We were of the opinion that there should be no rallies in times of Covid. But the NCP held big gatherings and we were compelled to campaign.”
He added that he is holding seven rallies in a single constituency instead of just two to ensure that the crowds are spread out.
NCP campaigning aggressively, pins hopes on sympathy wave
The Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress came together to form the MVA in 2019 to keep the BJP from coming to power after the Maharashtra assembly results threw up a hung assembly.
The BJP, which emerged as the single-largest party with 105 seats in the 288-member assembly, severely criticised the MVA for stealing its mandate and cheating the people of Maharashtra by forming an “unnatural alliance” that people had not voted for.
In this backdrop, the very first bypoll after the assembly election will be a litmus test for the MVA as it will give a small indication of whether the coalition enjoys public support after 17 months in power.
Accordingly, the NCP has gone all out in campaigning for the election. At a large rally addressed by Deputy CM Pawar, the party inducted BJP’s Kalyan Kale, a leader from Aurangabad district who has a significant presence in the cooperatives sector.
Party sources said Pawar visited local leaders from the Dhangar community, which has a significant presence in Pandharpur. He also met local BJP leader Sadhna Bhosale, who is the Pandharpur municipal council president and whose name was doing the rounds as a possible BJP candidate for the bypoll.
Meanwhile, despite the rising Covid-19 caseload and the recent political controversies, the NCP is banking on a possible sympathy wave for the Bhalke family. Bharat Bhalke had won the seat for three consecutive terms, first as an independent, then as a member of the Congress and later NCP.
Addressing a rally in the town on Wednesday, NCP State President Jayant Patil said, “We are all sorely feeling the hole left by Bharat Bhalke and to some extent voting for his son Bhagirath may help fill it.”
“Our opposition is such that instead of focusing on what all is happening in the state, the issues concerning the state, it is concentrating on how to snatch power,” he added. “They go everywhere and say we are going to come back to power tomorrow though it has been one-and-a-half years and they haven’t got a single ray of hope.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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