NEW DELHI: The SC/ST voters will play a crucial role in deciding the fate of candidates in at least 17 out of 48 constituencies in Maharashtra where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- Shiv Sena combine are looking to repeat their 2014 performance when they won 42 seats and wiped out Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
There are nine reserved seats in Maharashtra -- Ramtek, Amravati, Latur, Solapur, Shirdi (Schedules Castes seats), and Gadchiroli-Chimur, Dindori, Palghar and Nandurbar (Scheduled Tribes seats).
Two of the five SC seats were won by Shiv Sena and remaining by the BJP in 2014. The Congress-NCP will try to change the equation but they are placed on sticky wicket because of Prakash Ambedkar's Vanchit Bahujan Agadi, who has gird up with Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittegadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
Out of these reserved seats, Nandurbar has the highest ST population of 58.90 per cent while Dindori and Palgar have SC/ST combine population of over 40 per cent.
Maharashtra has 11 constituencies where the SC/ST population is more than 20 per cent and on six seats the number is more than 30 per cent. This include Chandrapur which has 12.40 per cent Scheduled Castes and 32.10 per cent Scheduled Tribe population.
In 2014 elections, the BJP had won 23 seats while Shiv Sena got 18 and one seat went to Swabhiman Paksha, then part of National Democratic Alliance (NDA), out of 48 seats in the state. The Congress was reduced to 2 and the NCP won 4.
The reserved lands of Maharashtra are once again witnessing a fierce battle but BJP-Shiv Sena enjoy a head-start and the NCP-Congress still struggling to get the combinations right.
The failure of NCP-Congress to bring Prakash Ambedkar into the alliance is expected to hit the opposition hard.
The fragmentation of Dalit and Muslim votes is expected to help the BJP-Shiv Sena which gets a boost from the committed voters of Ramdas Athawale's Republican Party of India (RPI-A).
The distribution of tickets on some of the key seats has added to the drama.
In Ramtek, once represented by former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, sitting Shiv Sena MP Kripal Tumane will take on Kishore Uttamrao Gajbhiye, a former IAS officer, of the Congress who was fielded much against the wishes of local workers, who had preferred Mukul Wasnik or Nitin Raut.
The contest is equally interesting in Amravati where Shiv Sena MP Anandrao Adsul is seeking another term overcoming resistance from within the party. He faces Navneet Kaur, a Telugu film actor, who was defeated by Adsul in 2014. She is contesting as an Independent backed by NCP.
The Congress is facing revolt in Nandurbar tribal seat where Bharat Gavit, son of senior Congress leader and nine-time MP Manikrao Gavit, is contesting as Independent after the party chose to field K.C. Padavi. The BJP has fielded sitting MP Dr. Heena Vijaykumar Gavit, daughter of former Maharashtra Health Minister Dr. Vijaykumar.
In Dindori tribal seat, considered to be an NCP stronghold, the BJP has fielded Dr. Bharati Pawar, a former NCP leader instead of three-time sitting MP Harishchandra Chavan. The NCP has given ticket to former Shiv Sena MLA Dhanraj Mahale.
All eyes will be on Solapur where former Union Home Minister and Congress veteran Sushil Kumar Shinde is fighting his final election. He is facing Lingayat seer Jaiddeshwar Swami of the BJP and prominent Dalit face Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb B.R. Ambedkar. Shinde had lost Solapur seat, once considered to be his bastion, to Sharad Bansode of the BJP. Solapur has 14.90 per cent SC population.