On 26 February, as twelve Mirage 2000H jets of the Indian Air Force crossed the Line of Control to conduct ‘military airstrikes’ against a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp in Balakot, Pakistan, in Maharashtra a different scene was unfolding. That same day, retired Bombay High Court judge B G Kolse Patil had stirred the electoral pot in Aurangabad by announcing his candidacy for the Aurangabad Lok Sabha constituency. By his own admission, Patil has belonged to Janata Dal (S) his whole life, but in his declaration, he claimed that he is running on behalf of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a political coalition comprising Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). His declaration letter states:
‘I have decided to fight the coming Lok Sabha election 2019 from the Aurangabad constituency and whoever opposes me will only be helping the fanatic powers of the Modi-Shah duo. And so I appeal to all parties for their support, that is all parties except the Shiv Sena and BJP’.
The letter, in addition to posing a direct challenge to the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra, has a second—albeit subtler—purpose. It aims at dissuading the Congress-NCP combine from fielding their own candidate for the seat, and instead, entreats them to throw their weight behind Patil’s candidature. “If the Congress-NCP field their own candidate, it will only end up dividing the votes. This is only going to benefit the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance”, said Patil.
Last year, the BBM—an avowedly Dalit empowerment party—and AIMIM—a party with a strong base among Western India’s Muslim population—entered into a strategic political tie up, terming it the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA). In uniting minorities across religious spectrum, from Dalits, Muslims and tribals to Dhangar, Koli and Agri communities, the VBA consolidated a decisive vote bank and is now a force to reckon with.
But when VBA demanded 12 out of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats as part of the Congress-NCP Mahagatbandhan, it was rebuffed. Instead, the Congress was prepared to part with only four seats. In response, the VBA called off the seat sharing agreement and decided to contest the elections separately. “There is no point continuing negotiations with the Congress as there will be no positive result”, said VBA chief Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dalit icon B.R Ambedkar. “The Congress keeps telling us that we must fight the Lok Sabha polls as an alliance
against the BJP. But they have already declared 22 candidates. They don’t want to give us any representation,” he said.
The same conflict is replaying itself in Aurangabad, but Kolse Patil is not worried. “Congress wouldn’t dare to field a candidate against me. They know I have a strong support base in the city. And if they do end up fielding someone, I will make sure that it negatively affects them, not just in this seat, but in all seats where Dalit-Muslim votes matter”, said Patil.
Originally from Ahmednagar, Kolse Patil went on to study at Poona Law College and after completion of his LLB, became a public prosecutor in Pune in 1980. After five years of life as a lawyer, he was appointed judge in the Bombay High Court, and served in this appointment from 1985 to 1990. However, in 1990, he resigned from the High Court to dedicate himself full time to social service. “Since retirement, I have spent my time travelling across the country, interacting with people, listening to their problems and trying to solve them wherever I can. And now, at age 77, I have decided to stand for elections because I am confident that I understand what people need. And I am confident that I will win”, he said.
In some ways, Aurangabad is the perfect constituency for someone like Kolse Patil—with his history of working for minority communities—to contest from. Named after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Aurangabad is a polyglot city heavily influenced by its Islamic heritage. In addition to housing monumental attractions like the Bibi ka Maqbara and the Panchakki, the city touts a distinctly Mughlai cuisine influenced by neighbouring Hyderabad. Aurangabad is also a Dalit bastion, home to Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University (BAMU) which encampasses 101 affiliated colleges under its umberella. Combinedly, the Dalit-Muslim vote in the constituency comprises approximately 45% of the total electorate. “And this 45% stands firmly with the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi”, claims Patil.
But contrary to the heterogeneity of the city, the current MP from Aurangabad constituency is Hindu stalwart Chandrakant Khaire from the Shiv Sena. In fact, Khaire has been representing Aurangabad in the Lok Sabha from the last four terms, i.e., from 1999-2019. An analysis of vote distribution in the last two decades reveals a steady increase in Khaire’s victory margin. Most significantly, in 2009, Khaire secured 2,55,896 votes or 35% vote share, whereas the runner up, Congress’s Uttamsingh Pawar got 2,22,882 votes or 30.5% vote share. But in 2014, Khaire’s vote share jumped to 52.9% whereas Congress’s Nitin Suresh Patil got a mere 36.5%.
“In the last few years, Aurangabad has seen a fair amount of industrial development”, said Karan Palaskar, an IAS aspirant from Aurangabad. “A new industrial belt, Shendra – Bidkin Industrial Park, is being developed as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Project (DMIC) and
that has created some positive responses”, said Palaskar in an attempt to explain Khaire’s enduring appeal.
Another local, Om Margaj, however, disagreed. “Khaire’s victory has nothing to do with industry or development. In fact, Khaire has failed to associate himself with any particular cause. He mainly relies on religious polarization, using his Hindutva rhetoric to whip up communal frenzy before each election”, said Margaj.
In fact, in November last year, Khaire was summoned by the CBI for questioning in the 1992 Babri Masjid case, in which hundreds of Shiv Sena ‘sainiks’ helped raze the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Sena founder and chief Bal Thackeray has repeatedly praised his karsevaks for their ‘service’, even as the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had shed tears over the mosque’s demolition.
Khaire relies on a similar, oft-crude, form of religious fundamentalism. This has confined his primary vote base to the constituency’s rural population, which is more likely to be swayed by communal rhetoric. The urban masses, on the other hand, have been increasingly disenchanted with the four time MP and the party he represents. Following demonitization, GST and, most recently, the Maratha reservation controversy, large swathes of the urban population—particularly the youth—are feeling more and more disconnected with Khaire and what he represents.
“In December of last year, Aurangabad was swept up in the massive protests for Maratha reservation”, said Kolse Patil. “But Shiv Sena-BJP played a cruel joke on the Maratha community. Though CM Devendra Fadnavis agreed to the protestors’ demands, the power to grant reservation does not rest with the chief minister of a state”, said Patil, citing knowledge of the law from his High Court days. “Only the President has the power to grant reservation. And so, now that the Maratha youth has realised the massive betrayal perpetrated by the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, they are bound to stand with me and the VBA”, he said.
But in spite of Patil’s attempt to frame Aurangabad as a cleanly divided, dichotomous battle ground – with the Shiv Sena-BJP on one side and the VBA on the other side – the reality is much messier than he is letting on. Each side of the divide is fraught with its own cleavages.
While Shiv Sena-BJP is facing an internal rebellion from Kannad MLA Harshwardhan Jadhav—who quit the Shiv Sena to found his own party, Shivswarajya Bahujan Party, and has been campaigning against Khaire for a while now—there are rumours that when it comes to the VBA, there has been some disgruntlement over Patil’s candidacy as AIMIM leaders and party workers have opposed his nomination. To complicate matters more, it seems quite likely that
Congress-NCP will field their own candidate soon. The reason for delay is widely surmised to be that Aurangabad is one of the few Lok Sabha seats that has witnessed a strong tussle between the Congress and the NCP over candidacy, with the NCP blaming Congress for its failure in the last five elections. And so, though there is no denying that Kolse Patil is a strong contender, the electoral landscape is fraught with complications that simply cannot be reduced to simplistic dualism – ultimately, only time will tell what happens.