"Top political leaders from all parties have campaigned for the crucial second phase in the 19 constituencies and are optimistic of a higher turnout here."
By Quaid Najmi

Mumbai, April 15 - The arid, backward region of Marathwada and the lush sugar-rich belt of western Maharashtra, besides a part of coastal Konkan, are set for the second phase of the Lok Sabha elections to 19 seats here Thursday.

A lot is at stake for all the major political parties with a total of 358 candidates, including independents, and several national level political bigwigs attempting to retain their influence in the second round.

Like Vidarbha, where polling was held April 10 with 62.37 percent turnout, the western Maharashtra-Marathwada regions have also reeled under the impact of the unseasonal rains and hailstorms in the past couple of months.

The electorate in Marathwada, already sulking due to lack of development or major industries there, has borne the onslaught of nature and neglect by the authorities.

In contrast, the pampered western Maharashtra - the sugar bowl of the state - is a picture of greenery and all-round development, making it a target of politicians from other less developed regions like Marathwada.

The constituencies going to the polls are: Ahmednagar, Baramati, Beed, Hathkanangle, Hingoli, Kolhapur, Latur, Madha, Maval, Nanded, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Pune, Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg, Shirur, Shirdi, Solapur, Sangli and Satara.

A total electorate of around 32.3 million will cast their votes in 36,879 polling stations spread across these constituencies which comprise the hot plains in Marathwada, the lush green fields of western Maharashtra, the cool climes of hill-stations like Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani, Lonavala and Khandala and the breezy Arabian Sea coast.

Among the big names in the fray here is Congress's union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde in Solapur. In Beed there is Bharatiya Janata Party's Gopinath Munde who is widely tipped to assume a major national role in case the NDA comes to power, and in Baramati there is the Nationalist Congress Party's Supriya Sule, daughter of party chief Sharad Pawar who is expected to play a leading role at both the centre and state levels.

There is also the Congress' former chief minister Ashok Chavan from Nanded. Despite the blot of the Adarsh Society scam, he is on his way to rehabilitation and poised to become the party's 'Maratha Face' in state politics after the demise of the late Vilasrao Deshmukh two years ago.

Like Nagpur in the first phase, where BJP ex-president Nitin Gadkari had to contend with 32 candidates, BJP's Munde in Beed will face competition from 39 candidates.

Munde's chief rivals are a former protege and now NCP strongman and minister Suresh Dhas and Aam Aadmi Party's well-known Marathi actor Nandu Madhav trying to wrest the prestigious seat.

Dhas is believed to have the backing of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar who would like Munde to bite the Beed dust in the tough fight.

In Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg, the Congress' Nilesh Rane is contesting against the Shiv Sena's Vinayak Raut. Son of Congress strongman and Industry Minister Narayan Rane, Nilesh Rane is currently in a hotspot as a local section of the ally NCP is refusing to work for him.

Ensuring Nilesh Rane's victory is critical for the Congress and Narayan Rane as it could have repercussions on t Rane's prospects in the Maharashtra Assembly elections due after six months.

The NCP's royal candidate, Udayanraje Bhosale - the 13th direct descendent of Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji - is seeking re-election from Satara with a challenge from Republican Party of India's Ashok Gaikwad.

Other stalwarts include NCP's Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil from Madha, and state Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam's son Vishwajeet Kadam from Pune where he is pitted against the BJP's Anil Shirole and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's Deepak Paigude.

There were apprehensions on Kadam's prospects after the Pune seat was denied to the scam-tainted strongman Suresh Kalmadi, but he has now wholeheartedly supported the young candidate.

Top political leaders from all parties have campaigned for the crucial second phase in the 19 constituencies and are optimistic of a higher turnout here.

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