In Latur villages, BJP tests new ‘social engineering’ formula

"ACTOR, hau ka?" asks a woman in Kavthala village, nearly 100 km from Latur, accessibly only by a perilous drive on a narrow, semi-complete road in Nilanga taluka. The sun-browned woman is referring to Sunil Gaikwad, the BJP candidate from Latur parliamentary constituency. As it happens, she is right. Gaikwad, 39, has starred in a handful of Marathi films, including one alongside Marathi cine legend Laxmikant Berde. "At least he has come," she says.

It is Gaikwad's political debut this election, and he is taking it seriously. Latur, a Congress stronghold since the late 1970s, was finally seized by the BJP in 2004, with seven-time MP Shivraj Patil suffering a shock defeat. Sitting MP Rupatai Nilangekar Patil is accompanying Gaikwad today. "I knew when I filed my nominations that I could win because there was so much resentment against the Congress," she says, herself unable to contest since the seat is now reserved for SCs.

The campaign party has just made its way through Tipral and Sakol, both villages with just a few hundred voters each. Gaikwad and Nilangekar, leading the way in their Innova, stop at homes of BJP activists, at chowks or village squares, stopping every few minutes to introduce the new candidate. Everywhere, people tell them no other candidate has reached this village.

At Sayyadpur, a mostly Dalit village of about 1,000 people, there is a small sabha. For want of space in the tiny pandal, some listeners clamber up to sit on the makeshift stage. "For every family, up to 35 kg of rice and dal at Rs 2 per kg," promises Nilangekar.

"He is highly educated," a BJP worker tells the villagers before Gaikwad begins his speech. Gaikwad has a BA in journalism, a master's in political science from a Nanded college, a diploma in naturopathy, an MBA from Marathwada University. Gaikwad is also a journalist and publisher of Suputra, a local Marathi daily. A BJP activist informs the gathering that his rival, Jaywant Awale of the Congress, has stated in his affidavit that he has not studied beyond standard 10.

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