Maharashtra

Strategic alliances

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray (kneeling down) with other leaders at the first BJP-Sena Lok Sabha election rally in Kolhapur on March 24. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

NCP chief Sharad Pawar and former Congress Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan at an election meeting to campaign for NCP candidate Udayanraje Bhosle at Karad on March 23. Photo: Uday Deolekar

Residents of Wadi area, located around 8 km from Nagpur city, arrange large drums to collect water supplied once a week by the Municipal Corporation. Photo: S. Sudarshan

Ujwala Patekar, Jyoti Kshirsagar, Neelima Dable, Archana Ganesh Thakre and Sarla Kadu of Kurzadi Fort village in Wardha. The village has witnessed 150 farmer suicides in the past decade. Photo: ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Vijay Jawandhia, leader of the Kisan Shetkari Sanghatana, holds a cloth bag given at a BJP rally. He says the party has spelt out the problems of farmers on the bag but does not hold itself responsible for the situation. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Maharashtra sees the BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP alliances sticking together after initial hiccups and the newly formed Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi tying up with the AIMIM with an eye on Dalit and Muslim votes.

With 48 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs, Maharashtra is the second State after Uttar Pradesh to send the largest number of people’s representatives to the Lower House of Parliament. The elections will be held in four phases from April 11 to April 29. The four main parties in the State—the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena—have retained their basic alliances. After a shaky start, the BJP and the Sena decided to continue their relationship. The Congress-NCP alliance accommodates a host of smaller parties.

Although the BJP-Sena combine is the ruling group in the State, the two allies have not had a smooth relationship. Initially, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray vowed not to go along with the BJP, but he was perhaps the only one who believed that it would be wise to have no truck with the bigger party. Given the Sena’s minimal political clout, it was highly unlikely that Uddhav Thackeray would have carried this promise through. And, as it turned out, it was merely an attempt to seek attention. The BJP understood this and responded by sending Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Human Resource Development, to break the ice, after which party president Amit Shah met Uddhav Thackeray. Satisfied that he was neither neglected nor taken for granted, Uddhav Thackeray agreed to the seat-sharing deal: 25 seats for the BJP and 23 for the Sena.

The Congress-NCP had a harder time organising themselves into an effective opposition alliance. After meetings that went on for more than nine months, the two parties finally arrived at a seat-sharing agreement of 26-22. Some small but influential parties have thrown in their lot with the Congress-NCP. They are the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), the Jogendra Kavade and R.G. Gavai factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi. Another ally is the independent leader Ravi Rana. The Shetkari Sanghatana will be allotted one seat each by the Congress and the NCP; the Vikas Aghadi will get one seat from the Congress; and Rana will get one seat from the NCP. The RPI factions and the PWP have been promised seats in the upcoming Assembly elections if the coalition wins in the State. So the final tally is 24 seats for the Congress and 20 for the NCP.

The Congress-NCP combine has the potential to stage a comeback. This conclusion has been arrived at on the basis of the time invested by the two parties in building rural institutions such as the ones in the cooperative sector and basic socio-economic and educational infrastructure. The two parties are known to retain a strong support in rural Maharashtra but of late this base has been slowly slipping out of their hold. Reason: since the combine has been out of power, its confidence has got eroded and its leaders have taken to consolidating their own positions rather than strengthening the party’s base. This has affected the institutions they built assiduously and is changing voter perception about the parties.

Leaders of the Congress-NCP and their alliance partners announced at a press conference after the formation of the alliance that their main aim was to “stop communal forces from coming to power again”.

But some of the tangible issues that resonate with voters are drought, agricultural distress, delays in payment of wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), unemployment, health care and urban issues that include public transport, infrastructure and housing. A point of concern is that the opposition’s plan of action is largely reactive rather than proactive. It is one more indicator that the BJP is a party with a plan and other parties are merely responding to it rather than working on creating their own agendas. In the past five years, the Congress and the NCP failed to consolidate their strengths, especially in rural Maharashtra, while the BJP and the Sena made inroads into rural constituencies. The Congress and the NCP need to be acutely aware of urban and semi-urban voters, both of whom are socially and economically upwardly mobile and prone to nod in agreement with saffron jingoism. Forty-five per cent of Maharashtra is urban with a total of 26 urban and semi-urban seats; 10 of these are important urban constituencies—six in Mumbai, two in Thane and one each in Pune and Nagpur. While the Congress-NCP enjoys respectable support in urban areas, the combine has not nurtured the support base to the extent the BJP has.

One serious problem that the Congress-NCP combine has been facing is members with a lack of commitment to party ideology and principles with the result that both parties have been haemorrhaging members. In the bargain, the BJP has been the beneficiary. Sujay Vikhe Patil, son of the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, and Ranjitsinh, son of former Deputy Chief Minister Vijaysinh Mohite Patil, both of whom belong to families that have been the bedrock of the Congress, have switched loyalties to the BJP. Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil’s contribution to the Congress’ rural cooperative movement is substantial. Infighting in the NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s family is also presenting a poor perception of the party to the public.

But this does not mean that the ruling combine is on a strong wicket. There has been bad blood between the partners until as recently as two months ago. For instance, Uddhav Thackeray added to the chorus of demands for a probe into the Rafale deal and asked that the Prime Minister be investigated for corruption. Before that, he had needled the BJP by saying that it had forgotten about its promise to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya. Voters are likely to recall this on-and-off relationship of the saffron combine.

The BJP-Sena administration in Maharashtra has lost its shine and it knows it will have to work much harder in the 2019 Lok Sabha election than it did in 2014. A senior BJP functionary told Frontline that the Narendra Modi wave that worked in 2014 could not be relied on this time to help the party coast to an easy victory. A somewhat similar forecast was given by an independent survey carried out by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) across 543 constituencies with a sample size of almost three lakh respondents. The top five concerns that emerged during the survey was jobs, health care, drinking water, roads and public transport. In urban areas, traffic congestion, noise and air pollution were added to the list. Rural respondents spoke of the need for subsidies and of the burden of agricultural loans. Thus, economic development, absence of job opportunities and poor quality of life are some of the issues that matter to the electorate.

Agricultural distress is evident from farmers’ failure to secure loans and the right price for their produce, a lack of marketing infrastructure and poor irrigation and power facilities. Added to this is the unemployment problem caused by failed crops and absence of alternative livelihoods. The MGNREGS has unfortunately given rise to a litany of complaints about delayed payment of wages and whimsical distribution of work. Massive infrastructure projects involving forcible acquisition of land across the State have aggravated farmers’ woes.

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, the Nanar refinery project in the Konkan (the land acquisition notification is being nullified now), the Jaitapur nuclear power plant and seven coal- and gas-based power plants in the Konkan region, mining projects along the Eastern Ghats and the Mumbai-Nagpur super expressway are some of the projects for which farmers have been forced to give up their land.

In Maharashtra, onion farmers have faced repeated crises. The State tops in onion production but a cycle of drought has resulted in crop failure, adding to farmers’ debt burden. The State offered a relief package of Rs.150 crore but it was too little. In any case, it was only after the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) organised an agitation that the State intervened “and that too because the government was nervous since it is an election year,” said Dr Ashok Dhawale, AIKS national president.

None of the agricultural crisis situations are new. Successive governments have made promises that are never implemented or are ephemeral. Like the BJP, the Congress, too, had cashed in on the election promise of farm loan waiver. Ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the Congress had announced a total waiver of farm loans. Modi had at the time famously called it “lollipop”. Now, the BJP government is offering the same solution. The long-term agricultural reforms the BJP talked about never quite happened.

Curbs on the freedom of speech and the tendency of the BJP-Sena government to stifle dissent are also issues in this election. The investigation into the murders of the rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar and “comrade” Govind Pansare are being perceived as unnecessarily drawn out, forcing the Bombay High Court to term it “shameful”. Dabholkar was shot dead in 2013 and Pansare in 2015 and the accused in the two murders are still absconding. In the same context, the growing presence of the right-wing Sanatan Sanstha is a matter of concern.

Matters relating to Dalits have also been hanging fire. The BJP has made a concerted effort to woo Dalit voters but its actions have been contrary to the aim. The ban on cow slaughter, cow vigilantism and the attempt to modify the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, have left Dalits feeling betrayed.

Dalits constitute around 12 per cent of the State’s electorate. Prakash Ambedkar’s newly formed Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a party of the marginalised and deprived sections of society, has fielded 37 candidates. Prakash Ambedkar chose not to align with the Congress. The VBA has instead entered into an electoral understanding with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Itehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Prakash Ambedkar feels that since about 11 per cent of the voters in the State are Muslims, Dalits and Muslims could together form a formidable electoral force.

Although the VBA is seen as a Dalit party, it was actually a creation of the pastoralist Dhangars. Dhangars had supported the BJP in 2014 after they were promised S.T. status if the party came to power. Since the BJP-Sena government did not keep the promise, Dhangars have withdrawn their support to the BJP. After the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence, Prakash Ambedkar re-established himself as a “bahujan” leader who understood that Dalits’ voices would be heard only when they ally themselves with other oppressed communities. Dhangars saw in Prakash Ambedkar a leader who would take up their cause. It is actually mutually beneficial.

Prakash Ambedkar is riding the crest of Dalit leadership in the State. Add to this the fact that Dhangars constitute about 9 per cent of the electorate. Prakash Ambedkar can be easily seen as a worthy political opponent. That is why the Congress and the NCP were worried when he refused to join their alliance. This was seen as splitting of secular vote but it was also argued that the RPI was so fractured as to be non-functional and that the VBA would infuse new political thinking required to revitalise the future of Dalits.

While both the BJP-Sena and the Congress-NCP have their dedicated voters, by forging alliances the latter combine has increased its chances of victory and the possibility of effecting a change at the top.

MARATHWADA

Drought, deciding factor

Drought has posed a major challenge to the BJP-Sena government. The administration has declared drought in 151 taluks and drought-like conditions in 931 villages in the State’s 36 districts. Crop failure, which has been officially recorded in over 85.76 lakh hectares, has affected approximately 90 lakh farming families and countless farm labourers. The government has sought Rs.7,962 crore from the Centre for drought relief, of which Rs.4,714 has been approved.

Marathwada is the worst-hit region in the State; 5,517 villages, that is nearly 60 per cent of the region, have been declared drought-hit. The government sanctioned financial assistance to the extent of Rs.1,050 crore to farmers as more than 54 per cent of the kharif crop failed in the region. A little more than 50 per cent of the assistance has been disbursed.

The MGNREGS is meant to mitigate rural distress by providing employment to rural adults, but corruption, involving contractors and politicians, in the implementation of the scheme has defeated the purpose in several cases. The contractors prepare job cards in the name of the workers but do not hand them over to the individuals. A job is given to the card holder but is carried out by the contractor who (since he is in possession of the job card) pockets the payment. However, statistics present an optimistic picture. As on April 3, 2019, the scheme was operational in 34 districts in the State; 91.52 lakh job cards had been issued to 215.66 workers; and the approved labour budget for 2018-19 was Rs.900 lakh.

Water scarcity

Of the eight districts that fall in Marathwada, four are experiencing acute water scarcity. The worst affected are five taluks in Aurangabad district, three in Beed and three in Jalna. The region is facing its third drought in five years. Finding water is the sole goal each day for many poor people. And the burden falls on women. Ashti taluk in Beed is one of the worst-affected areas in the State. In Chinchewadi village, Bhagirathi Ramdas Yerunkar’s thin frame is straining with the load she is carrying. Her arms are weighed down by two buckets of water and she balances a bright orange plastic pot on her head. She walks slowly so as not to spill any of the precious water she has collected from the water tanker lorry. Her 15-year-old daughter Manda, walks behind her, carrying similar but smaller loads of water. Since the timing of the supply is erratic Manda has to join the queue hours before the water tanker arrives.

Bhagirathi and her two daughters manage with about six buckets and three pots of water—sometimes for up to five days, using it primarily for cooking and drinking purposes. Washing is a luxury in these parts. When they run out of water and the tanker does not arrive, they go to a nearby well. The girls climb down, clutching the stones that jut out from the well’s wall to scoop up and strain the muddy water lying 30 feet below.

“It is good that my husband and two sons have left the village for work. Now we need less amount of water,” Bhagirathi said. Her husband works in a factory in Pune. One son works at a petrol station on the highway and the other in a roadside eatery. They would normally be employed as farm labourers but frequent crop failure has forced them to migrate.

In Marathwada alone, more than 30 lakh people depend on tanker lorries for their domestic water needs. According to government statistics, more than 3,200 tankers are servicing 8,000 villages and hamlets, a considerable increase from 400 tankers until the middle of March. Fields and farm animals depend on the meagre supply from the region’s dams. The district administrations in Aurangabad and Beed have started fodder camps.

With forecasts of a depressed monsoon, concerns are being raised about depleting groundwater levels, too. A report of the Ground Water Survey and Development Agency released in 2018, said that in 4,385 villages in 58 taluks in the region there was a drop of more than one metre in the groundwater table from five-year averages; 1,411 of the them showed a decrease of more than 3 m from the average.

A senior district administrator, who did not want to be named, blamed the government policies for the current situation. He said that its water management techniques were mismanaged. He is of the opinion that small-scale, localised water management techniques such as check dams, bunds, rainwater harvesting structures on buildings, meshed water tanks to collect rain water and revival of disused wells will go a long way in mitigating the water woes. However, political pressure was holding sway, resulting in the more lucrative business of owning water tankers, drilling deep borewells and building large dams. In some areas, wells are being dug on river beds, a practice resorted to only in desperate situations, and the government has requisitioned private wells.

The drought situation has brought the BJP’s flagship scheme, Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyan, into focus. The scheme essentially promotes micro irrigation, water harvesting and groundwater recharge. In November 2018, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis claimed that the scheme was a resounding success. A sum of Rs.7,000 crore was spent on it. But the opposition pointed out that it was a failure because despite higher rainfall in 2018, there was an increased use of water tankers to supply water. The Congress cited data to show that in 2014 the State received 70.2 per cent of the annual rainfall and in November that year only 71 water tankers were deployed. In 2015, the rainfall dropped to 59.4 per cent and the use of tanker lorries rose to 693. In 2018, the State received 74.4 per cent rainfall but 715 tankers were deployed in November. The Congress called for an inquiry into the monies spent and the poor results of the scheme.

The delay in declaring drought has caused some consternation. Indications of drought conditions were looming in early October 2017 but it took the government more than a year to declare drought in November 2018. Also, the government has declared partial drought in some areas.

It is interesting to see how a monsoon can affect an election. The 2018 monsoon arrived more or less on schedule and this in turn led to a normal sowing of the kharif crop. But towards the second half of the monsoon season, in August, when the crop was in its vegetative growth stage, there was an extended dry spell resulting in some crop loss. However, the late season moisture stress had a more lasting effect on the rabi crop. Even farmers whose kharif crop managed to survive the dry spell could not think of planting crops where there was no sub-soil moisture. The Union Agriculture Ministry’s sowing data for the last rabi season showed an average drop of 16 per cent in crop area. While big farmers may be able to ride out the losses of no sowing for one season it can be disastrous for small farmers. The other aspect of failed rains is the impact on cattle and other farm animals and also on the fodder that is required in the next season. Lack of water triggers migration for employment.

So it is imperative that governments declare drought without delay, disburse aid, start cattle camps and initiate MGNREGS works. In December 2018, a report submitted by the Aurangabad Divisional Commissioner said that the kharif yield was less than 50 per cent. Of the 8,530 villages in eight districts of the region, 7,281 reaped less than 50 per cent yield since they received less than 75 per cent of the region’s annual average rainfall of 800 mm. The 45 dams in the region had low storage, holding only about 17 per cent of the water in December last year compared with 57 per cent in 2017.

Anti-incumbency mood

In 2014, Narendra Modi’s popularity helped the BJP-Sena win six of the eight seats in the region. But the anti-incumbency mood may affect the combine’s winning chances in the region, with the possible exception of former Congress Chief Minister Ashok Chavan from Nanded and the BJP’s Dr Pritam Munde from Beed.

Parbhani has been a Sena fortress for 25 years. It will be interesting to see if sitting Sena MP, Sanjay Jadhav, retains his seat in the face of the infighting in the party and the public spat between the Sena and the BJP. Osmanabad, also a Sena stronghold, is held by Ravindra Gaikwad who won by a huge margin in 2014. In 2017, Gaikwad made headlines for the wrong reasons when he hit an Air India staff with a shoe. He may have competition from the NCP candidate, Rana Jagatjit Singh, son of senior NCP leader Dr Padamsinh Patil. Chandrakant Khaire, the veteran Sena MP of Aurangabad, will be contesting to win a fifth term. His Congress rival, Subhash Zambad, is a lightweight in the political arena but has a fair chance of winning given the overwhelming number of Maratha, Muslim and Dalit voters in the constituency. Zambad will, however, have to put up a strong fight because the AIMIM, which is making its Lok Sabha debut in Maharashtra, is fielding a candidate. The AIMIM candidate, Imtiaz Jaleel, although not a political heavyweight, has the backing of his party and Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA.

As Marathwada goes to the polls on April 18, candidates would do well to remember the core issues. Coming on top of recent increases in fertilizer, pesticides and diesel prices, drought and the government’s delay in disbursing aid may result in the rural population registering their frustration while casting their votes.

VIDARBHA

Rural discontent

In the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and 2014, the BJP and the Shiv Sena won a significant number of seats in the Vidarbha region. It is, therefore, critical for the two parties to secure this region, particularly in an election that may not see a repeat of the BJP sweep of 2014. Vidarbha’s political importance in the BJP’s election scheme became evident when Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his campaign from Wardha on April 1. The BJP-Sena has realised that it faces a huge anti-incumbency sentiment in some of the region’s 11 districts, especially in the farming belt. There is a good chance of the rural mandate going in favour of the Congress-NCP, that is, if the opposition puts up a good fight. Although the significance of Modi opening his campaign in the State in Wardha is that the party had to assure the voters in its stronghold that they are still important, the Prime Minister failed to address the agrarian crisis and rural discontent facing the region. His speech, according to the local people, did not resonate with the gathering, but the fact that he came could make a difference. Moreover, Nagpur is the party strongman and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s seat. He has been credited with several infrastructure projects in Nagpur.

Vidarbha’s saffronisation began in 2009 when the BJP-Sena won six of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the region. In 2014, the Modi wave that was sweeping the northern States reached Vidarbha: the BJP-Sena won all the 10 seats. On April 11, in the first phase of elections, seven constituencies in the Vidarbha region—Wardha, Nagpur, Ramtek, Yavatmal-Washim, Gadchiroli-Chimur, Chandrapur and Bhandara-Gondia—will go to the polls.

This correspondent spoke to a cross-section of people in some of the constituencies to know the ground reality. The mood is pro-Modi in urban areas, while the rural belt is frustrated and furious with the current regime—two extreme positions that obviously do not indicate any preference or trend.

Harish Ethape, founder of the NAAM Foundation, an organisation working with farmers based in Wardha, said: “In 2014 people voted on the basis of who would be Prime Minister. Modi’s charisma was a terrific alternative to the Congress-NCP, which at the time seemed a corrupt and tired party. I believe this time, people will be wiser. The BJP has not come good on its promises. So we will probably go back to the caste and community vote.”

Unlike the sugar-producing districts of western Maharashtra or the fertile Konkan belt, the Vidarbha districts have felt left out of the State’s development plans. The agrarian crisis that hit the cotton belt almost 15 years ago and the simultaneous unemployment problem led voters towards the BJP, which promised resolution of the farming crisis and creation of jobs.

“But the BJP has let us down, too. None of the policies or programmes have been implemented. It is a hoax. Just a big publicity exercise. The BJP is good at telling people how much they have done. If you come to Vidarbha you will see what a big lie it is,” Ethape said.

Ethape’s rant is not far from the truth. Frontline has extensively covered the region ever since farmer suicides began in 2005. Little has changed since then. Not only has the rate of suicides increased manifold (which is well documented), but there is no sign of development in the rural areas. Irrigation and public works projects are absent, primary health care is poor, higher education facilities are not available and there is not an industry in sight. Increased rail connectivity and power tariff relief have been significant contributions but only to the urban populace.

Agricultural distress and farmer suicides are not recent phenomena. Village after village is desperate for support. Drinking water shortage in rural pockets is causing alarm. Organisations such as the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, which were helping families of suicide victims, have shut their offices as the Central government stopped grants a few years ago.

Unkept promises

According to a 2018 report of the National Crime Records Bureau, the Vidarbha region recorded the highest number of farmer suicides, 5,214, in the past four years, followed by Marathwada, at 4,699.

Kurzadi Fort, with a population of 1,500, is a small village in Wardha district. It has witnessed 150 suicides in the past decade. An interaction with the women of the village revealed their anger at repeated neglect by successive governments. Their demands include loan waiver, loan disbursal for the next crop season, provision of drinking water, implementation of field water programmes and generation of employment.

Ujwala Patekar’s husband Prabhakar Patekar committed suicide in 2010. She received some compensation and her loan was waived, but she said it was not enough to sustain the family. In a double tragedy, her son who took over the family land committed suicide in 2017 unable to shoulder the debt burden. “The BJP government announced a loan waiver of Rs.1.5 lakh. It was not enough. My debt was Rs.2.5 lakh. We needed to keep taking loans for each sowing season, so the debt mounted. Now the bank says the loan waiver will cover some amount of my debt, but I have to pay the remaining, otherwise they will not give me more money. Where will I find the money when the cotton harvest is poor and we are not getting the minimum support price?”

Three out of the last four years have seen deficient rainfall forcing the State government to declare some parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha drought-hit. The State government unveiled a Rs.34,022-crore farm loan waiver scheme in June 2017, with a promise to write off Rs.1.5 lakh a farmer. In February, Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said an assistance of Rs.1,507 crore had been credited into the bank accounts of 42 lakh drought-affected farmers.

Jyoti Kshirsagar, who owns seven acres (one acre is equal to 0.4 hectare) of land on which she grows cotton, soyabean, tuvar and channa, said: “We have not received a single paisa. They made a fool of us. If we go to the bank, they say until this money comes, they cannot give us a loan. We do not know when this money will come. We do not know whom to ask. They say take crop insurance under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana scheme and we take it. We saw failure and low yield for two years. When we go for our insurance claim, the bank takes back the money, saying it is for repayment of the loan taken earlier. All their schemes are a fake. At least with the Congress, we got something even if it was little. These people [BJP-Sena] make a big show but do zero.”

Kshirsagar went on: “You see those big hoardings saying rural India and poor people are getting gas cylinders at subsidised prices. We got nothing at lower prices. They gave the LPG connection but we paid for it. Now, we don’t have money to get the refill and are stuck with big cylinders in our small houses.”

Sarla Jabrao Kadu, a senior resident of the village, said the situation had never been so bad. “There is no water to drink. That is the most dangerous problem here.” Kadu said the waters of the Upper Wardha dam could be diverted to the village, but they must be selling the water to some private company that sells drinking water to the rich.”

Archana Ganesh Thakre said: “Our children do not want to be farmers. They have grown up seeing the terrible crisis and tragedy around us. Our desire is to give them a better life. Many have migrated to the city. Even if they work in restaurants or do daily wage work, it is better than this life,” said .

“Rural people cannot live in this high-cost economy,” said Vijay Jawandhia, leader of the Kisan Shetkari Sanghatana in Vidarbha. He has been at the forefront of the farmers’ movement “until it was hijacked by free market supporters”. He said the Telangana government gave distressed farmers bearer cheques of Rs.4,000 an acre. “The cash flow immediately improved the situation. We need committed plans such as these to move forward.”

Jawandhia, however, believes that the BJP is a strong contender in this election as there are few alternatives. “It will boil down to a caste-based election.”

Explaining the current crisis in the cotton-producing districts, AIKS leader Ashok Dhawale said the Modi government announced a substantial increase in the MSP for cotton at Rs.5,450. It said the MSP would have a 50 per cent profit factor. However, the low yield in 2018 compelled farmers to sell well below the MSP to recover some cost. “It was a bogus announcement. They do not implement the MSP on time, forcing farmers to sell at throwaway prices.”

It is bad enough that weather has not been on the side of India’s cotton farmers. They have been battered also by a fall in global cotton prices. “Import duties remain high, but exports low,” said Dhawale. India is the second highest producer of cotton. This position should be leveraged, not neglected.

According to Swapnil Barai, a development sector consultant in Vidarbha working with a private firm, the key areas of intervention in agriculture such as better extension services, better returns, comprehensive risk mitigation plans for producers and assured easy access to credit are in the scope of development; they are not exercised. Employment is another key issue in this election; unless the numbers are made available, we may not be sure about the extent of development in the region. Gadkari claims that 25,000 jobs have been created. Barai said: “The case of statehood went missing before the 2014 election. Since then no one has raised the issue of Vidarbha being marginalised or neglected. I don’t know why, but this debate went out of sight with the BJP ruling at the Centre and in the State.”

Strong contenders

Vidarbha will decide the fate of several political heavyweights. Gadkari is contesting from Nagpur; Hansraj Ahir, Minister of State for Home Affairs, from Chandrapur; and the Deputy Chairman of the State Legislative Council, Manikrao Thakre, from Yavatmal-Washim. A few close fights have been predicted. The Congress has made a strategic move by pitting Nana Patole against Gadkari. Patole belongs to the Kunbi community and is viewed as a clean and capable leader. Anandrao Adsul, the five-time MP from Amravati, will contest against the former Telugu actor Navneet Rana of the Yuva Swabhimani Party, which has joined the Congress-NCP alliance. Thakre will contest against the sitting MP, Bhawna Gawli.

A BJP worker who did want to be named said, “It is not like 2014. There is lot of discontentment. We have to choose candidates on the basis of caste.”

The region is known for caste politics. The Kunbi-Maratha and Teli communities form a significant vote bank.

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