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Lok Sabha polls to clinch issue of Statehood to Vidarbha

NAGPUR, MARCH 15. The demand for a separate State of Vidarbha is likely to dominate the parliamentary elections here with the Congress agreeing to the demand of setting up a States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) and rejecting the demand for a separate State.

The Congress has already declared four out of 11 candidates to contest the polls from Vidarbha in its first list, giving party tickets to Vilas Muttamwar from Nagpur, Prabha Rau from Wardha, Uttamrao Patil from Yavatmal and Naresh Pugaliya from Chandrapur. All the four are sitting members of the dissolved Lok Sabha.

Vidarbha consists of 11 Lok Sabha constituencies namely Buldhana, Akola, Washim, Amravati, Ramtek, Bhandara, Chimur, Chandrapur, Nagpur, Wardha and Yavatmal.

Mr. Muttamwar has been elected twice from Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency in 1998 and 1999. He was also elected from Chimur Lok Sabha constituency for three times in 1980, 1984 and 1991, while Ms. Rau, who was former minister in the State Cabinet, was elected from Wardha constituency in the last Lok Sabha election.

Mr. Pugalia has been elected to Lok Sabha twice in 1998 and 1999 elections. Mr. Patil has retained the Yavatmal seat for six times from 1980 to 1999.

In 1977, the Congress had received a setback in the country. However, the party had secured eight seats from the region and the party had captured all 11 seats in 1980 and 1984 Lok Sabha polls.

It also got six seats in 1989 and nine seats in 1991 in the region.

In the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, the party got only two seats -- Bhandara and Ramtek constituencies. BJP and its ally Shiv Sena broke the record of the Congress winning six and three seats respectively in Vidarbha. In 1998 elections, the Congress and its ally RPI wrested all the 11 seats.

Over the years, the Lok Sabha polls were contested by the undivided Congress. However, in 1999 it was split over the issue of foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar, who formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), fielding the candidates against Congress in the region. NCP could not carve any niche in Vidarbha while the Congress on its own could retain four seats from Chandrapur, Nagpur, Wardha and Yeotmal.

The last year's trends show that the division of votes resulted in defeat of NCP and Congress. Having learnt the last year's lesson the hard way, both Congress and NCP decided to come together this year to contest the elections unitedly, of course keeping their identities separate and avoiding the division of secular votes in Vidarbha.

Though the Vidarbha movement had gone through different phases over the years since 1960, the people of this region were not seriously concerned with its demand and had always chosen Congress. Once Jambuwantrao Dhote, who was considered to be the `Vidarbha Sher' (Lion of Vidarbha) and Banwarilal Purohit had contested the elections on the plank of separate Vidarbha under the banner of Forward Block (FB).

They won the elections, but realised that it was not possible for them to politically survive merely on FB in Vidarbha without the support of the Congress and both of them had joined the party.

The demand for separate State of Vidarbha was revived in September last year, but the senior Congressmen were divided into two groups -- one led by Mr Purohit and the other by former Union Ministers N.K.P. Salve and Vasant Sathe.

The break away group of Congressmen led by Mr. Purohit formed a separate political party called Vidarbha Rajya Party (VRP), which also got the Election Commission's recognition. Mr Purohit has already announced to contest all the 11 seats in Vidarbha.

Mr. Purohit also formed a front comprising VRP, Bharip-BMS, led by its leader Prakash Ambedkar, Shetkari Sanghatana led by Sharad Joshi and some senior NCP leaders from Vidarbha including Datta Meghe, confidante of Pawar, who announced to contest the elections on the Vidarbha plank. Mr. Purohit, however, backtracked from his stand, and announced that if the Congress mentions in its poll manifesto about a resolution separating Vidarbha from Maharashtra be adopted in the session of State legislature by the Congress-led DF Government, his party would not contest the Lok Sabha elections.

However, the Congress was not in mood to get such a resolution passed. Instead, it demanded that the States Reorganisation Commission be set up by the Union Government.

The front has recently lost its strength following contradictions in the statements of its leaders. Mr Joshi, who came close to the BJP, recently announced that his Bharat Swatantra Paksh has joined the NDA government-led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and, in return, got the Rajya Sabha nomination. Mr. Meghe, who was served a showcause notice by the NCP following his son, Sagar Meghe, joined the BJP, indicated that he may contest the Lok Sabha on BJP ticket from Wardha against Congress nominee Ms. Rau.

Though contradictory statements were being made by the Front leaders, none spoke against each other, but their attitudes seemed to be operating in tangent.

Mr. Dhote also announced that his party Vidarbha Janata Congress was prepared to field all the 11 candidates on its own strength on the Vidarbha issue. In such a changing situation in Vidarbha, political experts said the Congress-NCP's combine may pose a tough challenge to the saffron alliance of the BJP and Shiv Sena in the region. -- UNI

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