Shiv Sena, NCP battle it out in India’s largest Lok Sabha constituency

May 21st, 2008 - 2:39 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Uddhav Thackeray

Mumbai, May 21 (IANS) It is viewed as a dress rehearsal for the general elections. But the low-level vituperative campaign makes the by-election from Maharashtra’s Thane Lok Sabha constituency, the country’s biggest, scheduled Thursday look like a municipal contest. The election, occasioned by the death of Shiv Sena MP Prakash Paranjpe three months ago, is crucial in many ways.

It will test the strength of two ascendant parties in the state - the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The Sena is making a serious bid to regain lost power while the NCP, in the ruling coalition, wants to be one up on its slightly bigger ally, the Congress.

The two parties could not have had a more ideal battleground than India’s geographically largest Lok Sabha constituency, comprising six assembly segments in which a whopping 3.5 million voters are expected to exercise their franchise.

The delimitation has vivisected the constituency into 15 assembly and two-and-a-half parliamentary constituencies effective from the next general elections.

Large chunks of the present Thane Lok Sabha constituency including the Thane-Belapur belt and Ulhasnagar have a concentration of industries while an overwhelming majority of voters are white-collared salaried people.

Of the 16 candidates, the fight is essentially between late Prakash Paranjpe’s son Anand, jointly fielded by the Shiv Sena and its ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Sanjeev Naik of NCP. In their early 30s, suave and unaccustomed to political jargon, both are bubbling with starry ideas.

Prakash Paranjpe won the 2004 Lok Sabha election against NCP’s Vasant Davkhare (deputy chairman of the Maharashtra Legislative Council) by 22,000 votes.

In the Vidhan Sabha elections that followed, the NCP won four of the six assembly segments - Ulhasnagar, Belapur, Ambernath and Murbad - with a much bigger combined margin of 111,000 votes.

In a reversal of the trend three years later, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won most of the local self-government elections - Thane, Kalyan, Dombivali and Ulhasnagar. This has made prediction of the outcome difficult though the scales appear tilted in favour of the Shiv Sena.

Riding the crest of Marathi sentiment which his party has whipped up in the run up to the election mainly to counter Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena’s offensive on the issue of ’sons of the soil’, Shiv Sena’s star campaigner Uddhav Thackeray drew huge crowds to his road-shows and public meetings.

Both Uddhav and NCP’s chief campaigner R.R. Patil spent most of the campaign time taking pot shots at each other over ‘vada-pao’ - Mumbai’s favourite fast-food item.

Although lacking his cousin Raj Thackeray’s searing aggression, Uddhav unleashed a volley of stinging barbs at the mild-mannered deputy chief minister to whom, he said, king Shivaji was anathema although skimpily clad cheer-dancers were okay. The two also hit out at each other over using Shivaji’s name for public toilets.

It is not just that the real issues of development, inflation, power crunch and industrial sickness, unemployment and civic amenities were relegated to the background in the campaign. Some feel that they seem unlikely to matter much in the outcome.

Although both contenders are Maharashtrians, the Shiv Sena has championed the Marathi cause since its inception half a century ago and revived the campaign with telling effect to gain Marathi votes.

“Yes, the Marathi factor will surely work in our favour”, said Shiv Sena legislator and women’s wing president Neelam Gorhe. “But voters’ love for the late Prakash Paranjpe, the clean image and earnestness of his son Anand and the good work we have done in civic bodies will also help us,” Gorhe old IANS.

The Shiv Sena, of course, stands to gain from the anti-incumbency factor against the Democratic Front government in the state and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi, she said.

Gorhe added that the terrorist blasts in Jaipur that killed over 60 people were weighing heavily on the minds of the people.

NCP state unit chief Arun Gujarathi is confident of his party’s victory despite soaring food prices and load shedding.

“We explained that the price rise, which is a global phenomena, has affected India the least and that power outages are on their way out,” Gujarathi told IANS. “People have also seen the corruption in the Shiv Sena ruled Thane Municipal Corporation.”

Gujarathi pointed out that the rank and file of NCP partner Congress and all Republican Party of India (RPI) factions have worked wholeheartedly for its candidate.

Maharashtra Labour Minister Ganesh Naik, who represents the Belapur assembly constituency for NCP, has said that the numerically strong Agri Sena and Lal Nishan workers’ union have both supported the NCP-Congress candidate.

Although a mandatory holiday has been declared in the constituency Thursday, Shiv Sena campaign managers are worried about low voter turnout because many voters, employed in private and government organisations outside the constituency, will have to leave Thane early.

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