With clutch of local wins since 2020, Congress tries to claw its way back into BJP fort Nagpur

With clutch of local wins since 2020, Congress tries to claw its way back into BJP fort Nagpur

Nagpur was once a stronghold of Congress, which is now aiming to improve its position there in next Maharashtra election. But BJP leaders believe Congress’s victories are exceptions.

File photo of a Congress worker waving the party flag | ANI

File photo of a Congress worker waving the party flag | ANI

Nagpur: The Congress in Maharashtra seems to be regaining territory in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) bastion of Nagpur, especially in rural areas of the district where it once used to be strong but ceded space to the rival over a period of time.

The latest boost to the Congress in Nagpur is its performance in the recent election of chairpersons in Panchayat Samitis and the Zilla Parishad. Of 13 Panchayat Samitis, the Congress got its chairperson elected in nine, while the BJP’s tally was zero. The Congress also retained the post of president and vice-president in the Zilla Parishad.

Nagpur in Vidarbha region is the home ground of BJP stalwarts such as Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, Maharashtra deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and BJP state president Chandrashekhar Bawankule. It is also the city where the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the BJP’s ideological parent — is located.

Speaking to ThePrint, Congress’ Rajendra Mulak, the president of the Nagpur rural unit, attributed the recent success to “efforts taken to restructure and strengthen the party at the grassroots” by building different cells and filling vacancies.

The BJP, meanwhile, called the Congress victory in the Panchayat Samiti elections “an anomaly”.

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From rout to re-strengthening

The Congress was strong in Vidarbha, including Nagpur, till the 1990s. It held on to the region even during the post-Emergency period, when it lost a lot of seats to the Janata Party elsewhere. However, the party started weakening post-1996, when the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won nine of 11 Lok Sabha seats from Vidarbha region.

Congress leaders blame the party’s slide in the region on infighting within its Vidarbha leaders and lack of efforts in strengthening the party.

According to Mulak, the party started picking up the pieces after its rout in the 2014 Maharashtra election.

In 2014, the BJP almost swept Nagpur district by winning 10 out of 11 seats. Its tally went down to seven in 2019 while the Congress won three and an independent candidate cornering the remaining one seat.

“We started various programmes from 2016 with renewed enthusiasm. We had taken out a Jan Aakrosh Yatra across the district, touching every village. Then we had a programme called ‘chavdivar charcha’, where we sat down and discussed various issues with villagers,” Mulak said. Chavdi refers to any traditional meeting place in a village.

Since 2020, the Congress has recorded several local victories in rural Nagpur. It also helped that the party was then in power in Maharashtra as part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government. The Congress ministers from Vidarbha such as Sunil Kedar, Nitin Raut and Congress state president Nana Patole aggressively campaigned for elections.

The party, with its ally Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), swept the Nagpur Zilla Parishad election in 2020. The Congress won 30 of 58 seats, the NCP 10, while the BJP got 15. The same year, the Congress also won the Nagpur division graduates’ constituency election for the Maharashtra Legislative Council, bagging a seat that was once with Gadkari.

Last year, the Congress again trumped the BJP in Zilla Parishad and Panchayat Samiti bypolls in Nagpur district.

“In the next assembly poll, the Congress will do much better in Nagpur, especially in Nagpur rural,” Mulak said.

Victory an anomaly’

While BJP Maharashtra chief Bawankule did not respond to ThePrint’s calls and text message, Sudhir Parve, BJP MLA from Umred, called the Congress’ recent wins “anomalies” and said the BJP was still the strongest party in the entire district.

According to Parve, the Congress gained some support after 2019, after the BJP leadership decided to deny Bawankule, a strong Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader from Nagpur district, candidature in the Maharashtra election that year.

“But, all that was in the past,” he said. “Now, he [Bawankule] has been given a prestigious post, and there is no confusion in the minds of people. They favour the BJP.”

Parve claimed that the infighting between Congress leaders was the rival’s biggest hurdle and would continue to hurt its prospects in Vidarbha region, especially Nagpur.

“The recent Panchayat Samiti chairperson elections do not say anything. Fadnavis saheb is doing a great job with [Maharashtra CM Eknath] Shinde saheb and people will continue to support us,” Parve added.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

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