India's very own "banana republic"--Jalgaon district in northern Maharashtra that produces than 16 per cent of India's bananas and 3 per cent of the world's output--is living up to its name: in the coming assembly elections, it has the highest number of rebel independent candidates who are literally driving their parties bananas!
The 'kites' are flying high. Every street corner has a 'TV set'. The 'candle' is burning 24X7 and the 'railway engine' is whistling through places where a new rail link is eagerly awaited. The better-known election symbols of the Nationalist Congress Party, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena are definitely shining bright. But it is the intrusion of the independent candidates that has not just added colour to the campaign but may also alter equations in the October 13 Assembly election.
In the Amalner constituency, the BJP had replaced its sitting MLA B S Patil, only to find him contesting with the 'fan' as his symbol against its official candidate Anil Bhaidas Patil. This 'lotus eater' is not alone. The former NCP man Sahebrao Patil, with the TV as his symbol and the title of 'krishibhushan' is taking on Lalita Shyam Patil, the official Congress candidate. Another independent, Milind Laxmikant Patil, is also in the fray with the symbol of "crop".
"There are around 15 candidates. No one knows who will win although B S Patil is a three-time MLA. Maratha votes will get divided. Earlier, there were 2-3 candidates and we could guess who has a better chance," says Balu Patel of Vadbas village of Amalner.
In another constituency of Jalgaon district--Rawer--the BJP has given ticket to Shobha Patil, denying candidature to its sitting MLA Arun Patil. The Congress has shifted its sitting MLA Ramesh Chowdhury from the neighbouring seat of Yaval to contest Rawer. Both the candidates face rebels as Arun Patil of the BJP and Shirish Chowdhury of the Congress are contesting as independents.
An hour's drive from Amalner takes you to another freestyle political bout--Shindkheda in Dhule district. A mobile orchestra party on a Tata 407 is singing poll-parodies of hit Hindi songs for the BJP's Jaikumar Rawal (who is quite mobile himself --he moved from the neighbouring Shahada seat after the delimitation changed the face of the seat dramatically). But he has made the local Shiv Sainiks angry and their strongman Hemant Saluke is trying to create a storm in the 'cup' symbol.
"This seat belonged to the Shiv Sena for the last 20 years. We have built the organisation. Every household has Sena supporters. The Zila Parishad, Panchayat Samitis all belong to the Sena," says Vishwanath Patil, Sena leader in the sub-division before rushing off to campaign for the rebel Sainik--Saluke.
There is no comfort for the Congress, too. Its first-time candidate, Shyamkant Saner, faces challenge from none other than the NCP's district president Hemant Deshmukh. "Saner lost a zila parishad election just nine months ago. How can a person, who can't even win a zila parishad, dream of winning an Assembly election?" Rawal Rajvansh, an NCP functionary, says at Deshmukh's election office, displaying his 'rail engine' symbol.
In 1995, a record number of 44 rebels were elected to the Maharashtra Assembly and soon most of them switched to the BJP-Sena alliance to form a government. This time, on the pretext of the delimitation--that has come into play for the first time in the state's Assembly election--many leaders were denied party tickets and thus became independents. Fearing another 1995-like situation, Congress leaders like Prithviraj Chavan had suggested "friendly fights" between the NCP and the Congress in some seats to rein in possible rebels. But the top leadership thought otherwise.
While the candidates are talking about serious local issues, personal attacks are also flying thick and fast. The NCP is dubbing Congress candidate Saner as an acolyte of former Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh, and says it can't vacate the seat for "a political novice". The Sena rebel claims "you have to salute at least four times while meeting BJP candidate Jaikumar Rawal." Rawal's companions say, the NCP's only aim is to scuttle Rawal's chances on caste grounds.
Rebel Congress leader Sunil Deshmukh might have hit the headlines for taking on President Pratibha Patil's son Rajendra Shekhawat for Amravati as an independent after being denied the party ticket. But there are many like him who might hit the 'official faces' in the coming Assembly elections.