Nagpur: BJP may be counting on the Modi wave to see its candidates through in the Lok Sabha polls, but Nitin Gadkari, the party`s former chief and nominee for the seat here, faces a tough battle against seven-time sitting MP Vilas Muttemwar in this traditional Congress bastion.
After a loss in his first direct election in the Assembly polls in 1985 from West-Nagpur constituency, Gadkari is making his debut as a Lok Sabha candidate 29 years later.
He had marked his rise in 1981 as a student leader in the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), BJP`s students` wing. Gadkari was later elected to the Maharashtra Legislative Council where he continues to be an MLC till July, when his latest term expires.
But although Gadkari has risen to the national level as a BJP leader, he is the only one in the higher echelons of the party who is not a member of either house of Parliament.
Now, he is banking on his charity and social work among all sections of society here, particularly the minorities, to see him through.
However, a section of his own partymen with links to BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde is learnt to be not too keen on his candidature. Also, a section of RSS cadre is unhappy with his style of functioning after his unceremonious exit from BJP`s top leadership.
Being a Maharashtrian Brahmin is also to his disadvantage in terms of caste equations.
But what is said to have sent the wrong signals to the party cadre is Narendra Modi`s decision to hold a rally in neighbouring Wardha after overlooking Nagpur. Wardha is seen as being a less important constituency than Nagpur.
Modi`s Wardha rally was held on March 20 after RSS snubbed the `Namo, Namo` chant, saying no individual was above the party.
Muttemwar is contesting his ninth election this time.
Between 1980 and 2009, he has won from Nagpur on seven occasions.
Although Nagpur is also referred to as `Sangh Bhoomi` - RSS was founded here in 1925 and also has its headquarters here - BJP has won only once from here, in 1996.
Congress here has a traditional vote bank of minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Dalits and OBC voters. There are about six to seven lakh such voters who always go for Congress here.
Muttemwar, who has managed to maintain a clean slate and does not have a single case of corruption against him, is credited with developing a multi-modal international passenger and cargo hub here. He also ensured direct trains from Nagpur to some cities and worked to develop a Metro Rail project here.
For the 2009 polls, although the then East-Nagpur MLA Satish Chaturvedi openly worked against him and the party, the situation has undergone a change and he is now wholeheartedly campaigning for him.
Muttemwar`s campaign is being led by former mayor and city Congress unit president Vikas Thakre, who enjoys a clout among the OBC Kunbi community, which has a sizeable voter population here.
Muttemwar is banking on an election rally by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi or a roadshow by Vice President Rahul Gandhi to galvanise support for his bid in Nagpur.
Although the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party has entered the electoral fray here, its candidate, Anjali Damania, is not seen as being a major threat for either Congress or BJP.
Damania, with total assets of around Rs 19 crore, has initially targeted Gadkari over his alleged role in financial irregularities.
As for BSP, although its candidate Manikrao Vaidya polled more than one lakh votes in the 2009 polls to finish third, the party`s contestant this time, Mohan Gaikwad, is considered to be no match for either Muttemwar or Gadkari.