Akola constituency in Maharashtra is one of the remaining three seats in Vidarbha region of the state which is yet to vote. Akola will vote in Phase 2 on April 18, and with seven seats of the region already having voted, political parties are pulling no punches. The Congress is blaming Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bhaujan Aghadi for dividing votes as the election in Akola becomes of one of the most polarized battles based on caste and religion.
Hidayat Patel, the Congress' only Muslim candidate in Maharashtra, is backed by local NCP strongman as he takes on the sitting BJP lawmaker in Akola. Last time he came second and lost to BJP's Sanjay Dhotre by over two lakh votes. Prakash Ambedkar, who also contested in 2014 and stood third, polled around 2 lakh 38 thousand votes. This time Prakash Ambedkar is contesting as a candidate of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi - an alliance of his group and Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM.
The Congress wanted an alliance but the talks fell through midway. If the Congress had managed to strike an alliance, the opposition candidate would have sailed through, Congress leaders claim, while blaming Prakash Ambedkar for batting for the BJP by not joining hands with the Congress-NCP alliance.
"We made several offers to Prakash Ambedkar. Our leaders went to his house six times. Ashok Chavan, Prithviraj Chavan and Chhagan Bhujbal went meet him. In spite of this he did not agree for an alliance and the reason for which he did not agree is known to everyone. When the Congress gave him such a good offer he did not accept and I am making a clear allegation that he is working for the BJP," said Hidayat Patel.
The Congress is banking on Prakash Ambedkar's absence from Akola and campaigning in Solapur, the second seat he is contesting. His wife, Anjali Ambedkar, who is holding fort in Akola told NDTV that the Congress' charges are baseless.
"It is utter nonsense. We are not eating into Congress votes. We are substantially eating into BJP votes. And that's why allegations that we are the B team of the BJP does not hold. The Muslims and Dalits have been vote banks of the Congress and are they introspecting why they are losing their vote banks? Our first target is the BJP and will always remain BJP-RSS so question of being sold out does not arise," Anjali Ambedkar said.
"Congress is not interested in an alliance. Congress was imposing itself on us," Prakash Ambedkar said alleging that the party putting up a Muslim candidate won't help it go beyond Muslim votes.
The cancellation of Asaduddin Owaisi's rally in Akola is also indicative that the Muslim vote is likely to remain with the Congress in spite of the Owaisi-Ambedkar alliance, which the Congress is depending on to narrow the gap between its candidate and the BJP candidate, who is also the sitting lawmaker. Prakash Ambedkar hopes to keep his core vote base and add to that smaller groups to help him repeat the results of 1998 and 1999, when he won with Congress support.
But the BJP candidate is hoping that the division of opposition votes will help him sail through once again. With a polarized campaign, he hopes that the majority votes will swing in his favour. "The BJP, Shiv Sena and other alliance partners are working together and we are going to do better than the last three elections," Sanjay Dhotre told NDTV.
Whether it's the BJP or the Congress or even the Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi, in Akola, all three candidates are depending on shifting votes for victory in the absence of a clear Modi wave like it was in 2014.