Prasanna Zore and photographer Sanjay Sawant travel to the sugar belt of western Maharashtra and find that the ruling Congress-NCP alliance is waging a grim battle for the 12 seats at stake here.
The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Maharashtra may actually find a bitter taste in their mouths when counting ends on May 16.
The sugar belt that consists of 12 constituencies -- Madha (from where NCP boss Sharad Pawar is contesting), Baramati (Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule), Pune (Congress's Suresh Kalmadi), Hatkanangle (NCP's Nivedita Rane), Kolhapur (NCP's Chhtrapati Sambhaji), Satara (NCP's Udayanraje Bhosale), Solapur (Congress's Sushilkumar Shinde), Shirur (NCP's Vilas Lande), Maval (NCP's Azam Pansare), Ahmednagar (Shivaji Bhanudas), Sangli (Congress's Pratik Patil) -- in western Maharashtra may spring a surprise on the ruling coalition.
Four constituencies of Pune, Kolhapur, Satara and Hatkanangle (a new constituency carved out after delimitation) are headed for a tough fight with most of the alliance candidates facing an uphill task.
The Congress's sitting MP Suresh Kalmadi, who is fighting a quadrangular battle against the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party's Anil Shirole, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's Ranjit Shirole and Bahujan Samaj Party's builder-turned-politician D S Kulkarni will find the going tough in 2009.
The uncle-nephew duo of Anil Shirole and Ranjit Shirole, both Marathas, are likely to eat into the Congress's traditional vote bank in Pune. Ranjit, 33, is attracting a lot of youth voters in this constituency. He takes pride in saying that he is the youngest candidate in the fray and is not afraid of bigwigs like Kalmadi, his uncle Anil and D S Kulkarni.
A large crowd that had come to attend MNS chief Raj Thackeray's meeting on April 19 has in fact boosted his confidence and he now expects that not only Maratha but Marathi and young voters will also vote for him. "We are fighting this election on the 'Marathi' issue and not ‘Maratha' issue," Ranjeet said when asked about his party eating up Maratha votes and dampening his uncle's chances.
However, the BSP's D S Kulkarni, a Brahmin, could play spoilsport and may bag this prestigious seat.
"If Behenji's (Mayawati's) social engineering experiment plays out in Pune then BSP would have opened its account," Kulkarni told rediff.com referring to Uttar Pradesh's example where Mayawati formed a government of her own by encompassing Brahmins into the BSP fold.
Of a rough elector base of 1.7 million in Pune, Dalits and Brahmins make up 700,000 voters. "If this section votes en bloc for me then Kalmadi may find himself in a spot of bother," Kulkarni added. Like in 2004, the BSP is contesting all 48 seats in Maharashtra.
Also, the bitter turf war between Pawar and Kalmadi is legendary and it will be difficult for the NCP voters to support Kalmadi as their elected representative.
Image: Lok Sabha candidates from Pune: Ranjit Shirole; Inset: D S Kulkarni of BSP, Suresh Kalmadi of Congress-NCP and Anil Shirole of SS-BJP.
Also see: The lady who will surprise Sharad Pawar! | India Votes 2009