Belagavi, Karnataka: The 31 March visit of NCP president Sharad Pawar to Belagavi to address leaders of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) was no doubt a huge morale booster for this fringe outfit representing the Marathi speaking voters of the region bordering Maharashtra. With two sitting MLAs, MES this time is contesting seven Assembly pockets in the Belagavi and Bidar regions, though its glory days when it held sway in the region is long gone.
Riven by internal rivalries, Pawar’s visit to the region after a gap of 32 years, it was hoped, would help bring the warring factions together and help consolidate the Marathi linguistic vote in favour of MES. But Pawar, who was accompanied by former minister Jayant Patil and Kolhapur MP Munna Mahadik, restricted his visit to a call to MES leaders to sink their differences and work together. The only positive from the visit seems to be Pawar’s indication that NCP will not put up candidates against the MES and his promise of help to the MES candidates.
Relations between Pawar and the MES had soured over three decades back when the MES rejected Pawar’s proposal to establish a new Belgaum near Shinoli, a village in Chandgad taluk of Kolhapur district of Maharashtra. However, the NCP now seems keen to enter Karnataka politics as a mainstream party using MES as its gateway into the state. NCP leaders have visited Belagavi twice in the past six months and Pawar is scheduled to visit Nippani again next week.
Divided between a builder and an editor
For the MES, whose candidates contest as independents, this election is an important opportunity to re-establish its credibility with the Marathi speaking electorate as the protector of Marathi "asmitha" (self-pride) and also add some credibility to its over 30-year-old demand for the transfer to Maharashtra of around 864 villages and towns, inlcuding Belagavi, Nippani and Khanapur in Belagavi district.
However, the MES remains divided into two main factions led by Deepak Dalavi, a builder and developer by profession and Kiran Thakur, editor of the regional Marathi paper Tarun Bharat founded by his father Baburao Thakur, a well known freedom fighter. Both come from families with strong ties to the region and the Marathi cause. President of the Sarvajanik Shiv Jayant Utsava Mahamandal, the Dalavi family helped found the Tukaram and Marathi cooperative banks in Belagavi. While Kiran Thakur, who heads the city MES faction, owns a chain of cooperative societies and resorts in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa.
The two seats it currently holds, Sambhaji Patil from Belagavi South, who has shifted to contest from Belagavi North constituency, and Aravind Patil from Khanapur, was mainly made possible by the efforts of social worker and MES activist, the late Suresh Hundre. A forum, Suresh Hundre Smruti Manch was formed in the vain hope, so far, that it can help the factions reach a compromise. It has also not helped that a section of young voters from Belagavi have demanded that all factions work out a middle path under the leadership of current MES central committee.
Yet, MES central committee's general secretary Maloji Ashtekar believes that the voters will rally behind the Samiti if it is able to put up a united front. As does Raju Marve, a grassroots activist who said that Marathi speakers have always supported the candidates announced by the central committee. "Dalavi has more support than the faction led by Kiran Thakur," he said. "Kiran Thakur should support the central committee and not put up rebel candidates."
'One MES candidate per constituency'
Manohar Kinekar, Belagavi Rural MES president echoes Raju Marve’s views. When a Congress candidate Laxmi Hebbalkar went campaigning in Belagavi Rural, in some villages people had drawn rangolis asking him not to enter. Can the sentiment be used productively? Senior leaders like advocate Ram Apte certainly believes so. "There will be only one candidate from MES in each constituency," he said.
Given that both Congress and BJP have made significant inroads into these pockets, with some of the MES leaders too migrating to these national parties, the four seats which offer the best chance of an MES victory are Belagavi South (Prakash Maragale), Khanapur (Aravind Patil), Belagavi North (Sambhaji Patil) and Belagavi Rural (Manohar Kinekar), thanks to the large Maratha population in these pockets and their continuing desire to merge with Maharashtra. The other candidates, Rambhavu Rathod from Bidar-Bhalki, Jayram Mirajkar from Nippani and the still vacant Yamakanmardi seat will need to offer the voters something much more than just a linguistic pride slogan. The merger with Maharashtra is no longer an issue with voters in these seats, who are more likely to go with the candidates of the national parties (Anjali Nimbalkar of Congress, Vitthal Halagekar of BJP, and Nasir Bagwan of JD(S) in Khanapur; Abhay Patil of BJP and MD Laxminarayan of Congress in Belagavi South; and Laxmi Hebbalkar of Congress and Sanjay Patil of BJP in Belagavi Rural), who offer a credible developmental agenda.
A quick glance
MES hey days were during 1957-62 when candidates it supported created a record by winning seven seats -- Bhalki-Aurad double constituency, Bagewadi, Uchagaon, Belgaum, Nippani and Khanapur, and another constituency in Uttara Kannada district. Since then, internal bickering has cost it dearly, especially when in 1999 all the five MES supported candidates lost in Nippani, Khanapur, Belgaum, Bagewadi and Uchagon. However, it could wrest back Khanapur and Belagavi South in the 2013 polls. Another factor going against the MES is the delimitation of constituencies in the region, which scattered the Marathi speaking voters reducing their majority to minority status in their crucial assembly segments. At present, the only saving grace for the MES was the support the Marathi speaking electorate showed the outfit by enabling it to win the prestigious 58-member Belagavi City Corporation. The seven constituencies are Belagavi South, Belagavi North, Belagavi Rural, Khanapur, Nippani, Yamkanmardi and Bidar-Bhalki.
The authors are freelance writers based in Belagavi and members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Updated Date: Apr 26, 2018 07:00 AM