Once upon a time, Kasba Peth was a BJP bastion in the heart of Pune, a traditional stronghold held by the saffron party for nearly 30 years.
But on March 2, when the results of the assembly bypoll in Kasba Peth were announced, celebrations broke out – not at the BJP office but at the Congress office in Pune’s Shivaji Nagar. Congress workers threw gulal at each other and cheered – a far cry from Congress Bhavan’s usual deserted look.
And there was cause for celebration.
Congress candidate Ravindra Dhangekar had defeated BJP candidate Heman Rasane by over 11,000 votes, scripting a historic victory. It was also a helpful boost in morale for the Congress’s alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) ahead of the corporation elections in the state.
Kasba Peth was the BJP’s strongest base in Pune. Rasane was backed by the state’s tallest leaders, including Devendra Fadnavis and chief minister Eknath Shinde. It’s also populated by traditional RSS supporters, with the RSS headquarters Moti Baug located in the area.
Now, it’s gone to the Congress, raising questions on what this might mean for the future.
Scripting a loss
In 1978, Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader Arvind Lele had won the Kasba Peth seat, and then again in 1980 after the formation of the BJP. He lost in 1985 but the BJP retook the seat in 1990 after the victory of its candidate Anna Joshi.
From 1995 to 2019, BJP stalwart Girish Bapat held the seat until he won the Lok Sabha poll in 2019. The seat was then won on behalf of the BJP by Mukta Tilak, great-granddaughter-in-law of freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who held it until her death in December 2022. The bypoll was accordingly scheduled.
The BJP has traditionally given a ticket to a Brahmin candidate, given Kasba Peth’s sizable Brahmin population. Its losing candidate this year is not a Brahmin, so pollsters have speculated this is why he lost.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar, the head of the School of Government at the Maharashtra Institute of Technology, told Newslaundry there were three factors at play in Kasba Peth.
“One, opposition unity and open campaigning by NCP leaders and Adityaa Thackeray for the Congress candidate,” he said. “Two, resentment among Brahmin voters, who make up 10 percent of the constituency, due to the BJP denying a ticket to a Brahmin candidate. And three, the heavy presence of ministers and party stalwarts from the BJP and Shiv Sena’s Shinde faction was not taken in good spirit by the common voters.”
He added that the BJP campaign was also marred by “allegations of large-scale dispersal of money to voters”. The winning Congress candidate Dhangekar had last week accusing the BJP of buying votes.
BJP voters in the constituency were also unhappy because the party didn’t give a ticket to Mukta Tilak’s family members. When Rasane – formerly chief of the Pune Municipal Corporation’s standing commission – was announced as the candidate, Mukta’s husband Shailesh Tilak that this was an “injustice”.
“The selection of Rasane was done after sidelining many important factors, including his reach on the ground,” said a local BJP leader on condition of anonymity. “He may have been in the standing committee for three years but he doesn’t have any connection with the people. Many of the people in the constituency don’t even know him. If the ticket had been given to someone from the Tilak family, the chances of winning the election would have increased.”
Sandeep Khardekar, vice-president of the BJP in Pune, told Newslaundry they’re “still introspecting” on what went wrong. But he, like other locals and politicians, admitted that it was Dhangekar’s image that tipped the scales.
“Two or three things had come to our notice,” he explained. “First, our committed voters have not voted, and around 16,000 voters have moved away from Kasba Peth to other parts of the city. Second, the combined votes of NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena (Uddhav) stayed together. And the third, most important, factor is the soft-speaking personal image of Dhangekar.”
He continued, “He created an image of someone who works for the common people. So it was actually a fight between Ravindra Dhangekar and the BJP, not MVA” – the alliance – “versus BJP.”
Khardekar disagreed that his party lost the Brahmin vote.
“That is a misconception. In fact, ward number 15, which is dominated by Brahmins, gave us a lead of 7,500 votes,” he said. “But yes, the votes were fewer in comparison to those who voted for Mukta Tilak.”
A man who connects with the people
Winning candidate Dhangekar started his political career with the Shiv Sena before joining Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. In 2017, he joined the Congress after he was allegedly spurned by the BJP. Dhangekar is a four-time corporator who unsuccessfully contested from Kasba Peth in the assembly elections in 2009 and 2014.
Indrajeet Takawane, general secretary of the Pune city Congress, told Newslaundry that Dhangekar has a “very great connect” with locals which helped him win over the BJP that “brought all its big leaders to campaign”.
“He’s never seen traveling in a car. He can often be seen riding pillion on a scooter with someone in need of his help,” he said. “Whether it’s a problem with hospital bills, Aadhaar card, school, water, electricity – you name it and he is there for you. His groundwork has helped to win this election because people vote for the person who works.”
Takawane believes Dhangekar would’ve won even if the BJP ticket had gone to a member of Mukta Tilak’s family. “Yes, the competition would have been more fierce, but he would have emerged victorious.”
Suhas Kulkarni, a Pune-based political commentator, said the Congress was helped by the fact that the RSS “gave an indirect message to the BJP” for not putting forward a Brahmin candidate.
“Brahmin voters have not voted in the usual manner and the percentage of voting has gone down,” he said. “There are also local issues that the BJP did not address. People are fed up with price hikes and other problems but the BJP instead was campaigning on issues of religion and polarisation.”
This “polarisation” included the BJP of how a Hindu temple purportedly lies under a dargah in Pune.
A BJP voter in Kasba Peth said, “Nationalism and other things are okay but you cannot woo voters using only nationalism and religion. Kasba Peth is one of the oldest areas in Pune. There are various local issues related to redevelopment, dilapidated condition of old buildings, water supply, traffic, etc. Many people have moved away due to these problems. Instead of prioritising these issues, the party was focused on polarisation and nationalism which did not attract a positive response from voters.”
But Kulkarni doesn’t think the Kasba Peth victory will help the MVA in Maharashtra.
“There is no permanent adjustment,” he said. “In fact, this win is going to increase the struggle between the NCP and Congress for tickets. They have realised now that by fighting together, they may have a chance to win against the BJP. But in coming times, both parties will struggle to fix the tickets for their candidates.”
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