Baramati: Known for his outspokenness, NCP leader Ajit Pawar evokes extreme reactions across the political spectrum of Maharashtra, but never lets go his firm hold over Baramati, the pocket borough of Pawars in the Pune district.
Often in news for the wrong reasons, be it the alleged irrigation scam, the infamous comment with reference to dry dams or the allegations of coercion of locals to vote for Supriya Sule in the Lok Sabha election, Ajit, the nephew of NCP chief Sharad Pawar, is seeking a sixth term to the Assembly on a little shaky home turf this time.
NCP supporters remain unruffled by the controversies and criticism dogging Ajit, fondly called `Dada', and are confident that he would win hands down. But whispers in the constituency -- where the opponents have accused the Pawars of intimidation -- point to a distinct possibility of significantly reduced victory margin.
"The wind is blowing in a different direction. There are un-kept promises of infrastructure development and water supply projects in a region faced with erratic monsoon for the last five years. Dhangar population is angry with lukewarm response from Congress-NCP government to their demand of inclusion in the ST reservation category. This will have a bearing on the voting pattern and could prove detrimental to Ajit's margin and favour BJP's Balasaheb Gavde who belongs to the Dhangar community," said a woman teacher in the area.
Buoyed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in this Pawar bastion earlier this week, BJP, notwithstanding the prospects of division of votes with Shiv Sena, has put the campaign in top gear using social networking sites, propaganda songs, pad-yatras, corner meetings, cultural engagements with women and door-to-door canvassing.
Ajit's supporters, however, point out that he is so confident of his victory that as in the past, after filing the nomination he would be returning to Baramati only on the last day of campaigning to meet his voters. Till then he would be touring Maharashtra to canvas votes for other NCP candidates.
Farmers, farm labourers and Dhangars (shepherd community) are the main segments of the constituency which has about 2.77 lakh voters. Since 1968, it has been represented by the Pawars -- Sharad, Ajit and Supriya -- all through, both in the Lok Sabha and the assembly.
Ajit has won all the Assembly elections from here since 1991. However, according to the BJP leaders, Modi's rally on Thursday in Baramati would not only boost the party's campaign but also scotch the rumours of tacit understanding between NCP and BJP.
The main contest will be between Ajit and Balasaheb Gavde, a staunch BJP activist from the Dhangar community who had a close association with the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde who spearheaded a sustained anti-Pawar campaign in Baramati region.
During the campaign, Modi launched a pointed offensive against the Pawar family, accusing them of "back-stabbing" the Dhangar community by not considering their demand of inclusion in the ST category. He also accused them of "enslaving" the people of Baramati.
The presence of Congress candidate Akash More, son of a former MLA from the region, is at best considered symbolic as the party's base here has been steadily eroding.
In this backdrop, political observers say the breaking of Shiv Sena-BJP alliance will benefit Ajit more, with the Sena putting up its own candidate.
However, even NCP supporters concede in private that Ajit's victory margin, which was over one lakh in 2009, is certain to dwindle considerably following a negative image of NCP with accusations of various scams against its ministers in the erstwhile coalition government in Maharashtra.
What lends credence to this speculation is the drastically reduced winning margin of Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule in the Lok Sabha election from Baramati this time against the Dhangar leader Mahadeo Jankar.
Jankar's Rashtriya Samaj Party (RSP) is an ally of BJP along with Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana led by Raju Shetti. Sule managed to retain the seat by a margin of about 70,000 votes this time; in 2009 her victory margin was four lakh-plus.
It could well be a d?j? vu for NCP in the October 15 Assembly poll in Baramati with the voters following the same trend as in April. Ajit Pawar may romp home without the earlier glory in terms of the victory margin in this Pawar citadel.