Mumbai: Lying in the Tapti River valley, the North Maharashtra region of the state will see fierce battles between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena and the Opposition parties for the 8 Lok Sabha seats, here.
During the 'Modi-wave' of 2014, the BJP-SS swept clean the region, most of it considered a Congress stronghold, which the latter is now trying to wrest back in the high-stakes elections.
Jalgaon, Raver and Ahmednagar will vote On April 23, and Shirdi, Nashik, Dindori, Dhule and Nandurbar on April 29. While six seats are held by the BJP, two are with ally Sena.
The region, comprising vast tribal tracts, has usually shot to the limelight for malnutrition among children but otherwise remained largely out of the spotlight unlike its politically significant cousins, Marathwada or Vidarbha.
This time, however, it hogged the media domain in a big way when last month, a medico, Sujay, son of Congressman and Maharashtra Leader of Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, suddenly quit and joined BJP.
His grouse was that the Nationalist Congress Party did not give up the Ahmednagar seat which has been the bastion of one of the oldest political clans, the Vikhe-Patil family, here and the Congress held sway here from 1952-1998.
After Sujay Vikhe-Patil's walk-over, the BJP promptly rewarded him with a ticket and now he is pitted against NCP's Sangram Jagtap. Upset by the NCP's reactions to the development, sulking Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil will not campaign for the Congress-NCP alliance candidate (Jagtap) here, which would suit the son well.
Another key battle will be Nashik, where NCP's Sameer Bhujbal, nephew of former Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan BJP, will challenge the sitting Sena MP, Hemant Godse.
Sameer Bhujbal had won it in 2009 and lost to Godse, and both will now lock horns amidst the backdrop of both the uncle-nephew being jailed for (Chhagan) two years and (Sameer) one-and-half year in a money-laundering case filed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
Chhagan Bhujbal, a former Mumbai Mayor and close the founder-patriarch of Shiv Sena, the late Bal Thackeray, suddenly quit in 1991, was rewarded with a ministry in the Congress government.
It was in July 1997, when he was the Leader of Opposition in the first Shiv Sena-BJP government, that irate Sainiks attacked his official home, a few days after the shocking police firing that killed 10 Dalits in Ramabai Nagar, at Ghatkopar, northeast Mumbai.
These (the Dalit killings and attack on LOP) snowballed into a major national issue with the then Union Home Minister, the late Indrajit Gupta, warning Thackeray Sr. of dire consequences, an indicator of the old feud between the erstwhile chums, the Thackerays and the Bhujbals.
This time, Godse is facing an uphill task with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) supporting Sameer Bhujbal, and also Congress-NCP candidates in other seats in this region.
Dhule is a prestige seat with BJP's Union Minister of State for Defence (Dr) Subhas Bhamre seeking reelection, fighting against Congress legislator Kunal R. Patil, the son of party strongman and ex-minister Rohidas Patil.
Nandurbar is another challenging seat for the sitting BJP MP, (Dr.) Heena Gavit, fighting against Congress' K. C. Padavi. A former strongman, nine-time MP and union minister Manikrao H. Gavit, 85, is upset as the Congress denied tickets to him and his son Bharat, but the MNS' and the Mahagathbandhan may help Padavi.
The tribal-dominated Dindori could pose problems for the BJP which dropped its sitting two-time MP, Harishchandra D. Chavan in favour of NCP defector Bharti Pawar, whom he had defeated in 2014 by a margin of 2.45 lakh votes.
The BJP also dropped its two-time sitting MP in Jalgaon, A.T. Nana Patil, and nominated sitting MLC and former state BJP Women's Wing President Smita Uday Wagh, who is pitted against NCP's Gulabrao Deokar.
But this change could pose problems from Patil loyalists, many Shiv Sainiks resenting her candidature, vis-A-vis the Deokar getting support from Congress, the 56-party Mahagathbandhan and the MNS.
Another seat to watch out would be Raver from where the BJP has re-nominated Raksha Nitin Khadse to fight Congress' Ulhas Patil.
Incidentally, she is the daughter-in-law of senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse, who was forced to quit the state cabinet in June 2015 following allegations of corruption, and continues to remain in political wilderness.
The pilgrimage centre of Shirdi, famed for the Shri Saibaba Temple, will see a contest beween Shiv Sena's Sadashiv Lokhande and the Congress' Bhausaheb Kamble.
North Maharashtra is famed for horticulture and vegetable produce, like Lasalgaon, the onion capital of India, Jalgaon, banana capital, Nandurbar, the poultry capital, Nashik grapes making it the vineyard capital, Ahmednagar for its sugar mills, including Asiaa¿s first cooperative sugar factory started by the late Vitthalrao Vikhe-Patil.
Besides, Nashik is known as a pilgrimage centre for the Trimbakeshwar and the Kumbha Mela held here every 12-13 years, besides Shirdi in Ahmednagar. India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had penned his epic, "Discovery of India" when he was lodged in the Ahmednagar Jail during the freedom movement.