Maharashtra Assembly election: Missing the wood for the trees

As the Maharashtra Assembly election approaches, the opposition seems to have played into the BJP’s hands: it is focussing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s record instead of highlighting the serious issues threatening livelihoods.

Published : Oct 24, 2019 07:00 IST

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at road show for Bharatiya Janata Party candidates in Navi Mumbai on October 15.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at road show for Bharatiya Janata Party candidates in Navi Mumbai on October 15.

The campaign focus in the run-up to Maharashtra’s Assembly elections took a different turn this time. The usual practice of debating State-specific issues was put on the back burner, while national issues such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, the law on triple talaq and the purchase of the Rafale aircraft played a surprisingly prominent role.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) success in the Lok Sabha election, the party has invested considerable effort in promoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personality rather than in informing voters about the BJP government’s achievements over the last five years. Home Minister Amit Shah, at a campaign rally in Kolhapur district, told the crowd that the man with the 56-inch chest had done what the Congress had not been able to do in years. The reference was, of course, to the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, which the BJP has turned into a campaign plank. The BJP hopes to ride home on Modi’s persona and the muscular nationalism and Hindutva promoted by the party.

Part of the BJP’s campaign strategy seems to have been to present a trail of victories at its rallies. Instead of seeing this as a ploy to deflect people’s attention from real issues, the opposition fell into the trap of responding to the BJP’s claims. It ended up wasting valuable face time with rally crowds by focussing on Modi’s persona and various national “victories” instead of highlighting the many issues that plague the State. The BJP, only too pleased that it was so easy to have the opposition playing into its hands, used all opportunities to lash out at senior leaders of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Pawar, a special target

Sharad Pawar has been a special target. A source said: “It seems that the BJP is targeting Pawar and his party with a view to completely erasing the NCP and reducing Pawar’s political career to nothing. You see, the BJP fears Pawar and his power. That is why they have focussed their energies on western Maharashtra which is where his power stems from. His power is not the same as before, and the BJP is revelling in it. He may be unwell and old, but he must not be underestimated.” The BJP’s electioneering strategy seems to be paying off.

NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik said: “In the last six months, the industrial slowdown has intensified, unemployment continues to be on the rise, and farmers are struggling to survive.”

The agrarian crisis has not eased. The problems remain the same—low irrigation coverage, exclusion of more than four million farmers from the institutional credit system, outstanding debts and the consequent cycle of poverty, poor links between farmers and markets, droughts and an absence of water conservation schemes, an insistence that produce be sold through the APMC markets, over-regulation of foodgrains and oil seeds, and the old issue of remunerative pricing.

Agrarian crisis

Speaking to Frontline some months ago, Dr Ajit Navle, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said: “The government is aware of the might of farmers, but the farmers themselves do not take advantage of this as much as they could. That is why we organised them and proved they had collective strength.” He was speaking in the context of the two massive morchas organised by the Kisan Sabha, following which promises were extracted from the State government.

After the first morcha in 2017, the government responded quickly, announcing a waiver of farm loans. Typically, the victory was enmeshed in a slew of administrative gaffes, which effectively halted the process of the loan waivers. In response, another massive protest was organised in March 2018, with farmers marching from Nashik to Mumbai. The demands this time included removing bureaucratic hurdles. The tragedy is that the process continues to be smothered in red tape, and the lack of a decentralised system means farmers need to travel miles to register themselves at government centres. Once done, there is no assurance that the computerised system has saved the information. It is common for applications to be rejected, which forces applicants to start the process all over again.

With the election in mind, the government has announced measures to help cultivators. But it is understood that while the schemes are good, disbursal and outreach are poor. A pension scheme for farmers makes it possible for people between eight and 40 to contribute to a pension fund, to which the Centre will contribute an equal amount. When contributors reach the age of 60, they will get Rs.3,000 a month. Farmers who are economically vulnerable and those with cultivable land up to two hectares are eligible for direct income support at the rate of Rs.6,000 a year.

While the government had increased the minimum support price for 14 kharif crops last year, AIKS members say it is still far below the recommendations of the M.S. Swaminathan-led National Commission on Farmers.

In early October, a spark of unexpected humour came from a Congress press release that started with “Howdy Unemployment! – I am increasing month after month.” The BJP retorted that this was in bad taste. But the spoof on the “Howdy Modi” event in the United States highlighted the growing crisis in unemployment.

This was echoed by Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury. At an election rally in Dahanu taluk on October 13, he said that employment opportunities were the worst in 50 years. Alleging that the BJP government planned to shut down state-owned institutions such as BPCL, BSNL and MTNL in order to help Reliance’s Jio brand, he said: “Instead of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s slogan of Jai Hind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new slogan has become Jio Hind.”

Yechury added: “There is an unprecedented economic crisis in the country today because of demonetisation, Goods and Services Tax, non-performing assets, and crony capitalism of the BJP government.”

Of special concern is the auto sector, largely based in Maharashtra, in which 10 lakh employees are likely to lose their jobs. Ironically, there are more than 1,90,000 government job openings at various levels that are vacant in Maharashtra.

Describing the imbalanced governance of Maharashtra over the last five years, the All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) national spokesperson, Gourav Vallabh, said in a press note: “In Maharashtra the agriculture sector growth rate is just 0.4 per cent. More than 12,000 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra between 2015 and 2018. Between January and June 2019, around 1,300 farmers have committed suicide. Maharashtra has the second lowest wage rate in the country for casual labour, even Shri Nitin Gadkari agrees that enough jobs are not being created. Since 2011-12, there has been a 250 per cent increase in unemployment in Maharashtra. Big-time retrenchments are happening in corporate sector. Out of around 6.07 lakh defunct companies in India, 1.41 lakh are in Maharashtra.”

He provided figures showing that 50 per cent of micro, small and medium enterprises in Aurangabad, a city known for first-generation entrepreneurs, had shut down operations. The Kaushal Vikas Yojana (skill development programme) has failed to help candidates and Maharashtra is the worst performer amongst the big States. Fewer than 12 per cent of the candidates in Maharashtra have been placed, while the national average is 26 per cent. Factory closures have made unemployment worse. Between 2014-15 and 2017-18, more than 2,200 factories in Maharashtra were shut.

Vallabh said that the crisis in Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank (PMC) was an example of how the system was failing. The crisis in the bank was exposed a month before the election and has been dubbed as Demo 2.0, a reference to the 2016 demonetisation and the panic that had ensued after it. The Congress has described the near collapse of PMC Bank as a “systemic failure rather than an individual bank failure”. Questioning the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) handling of the crisis, the Congress also asked whether it was just the cooperative banking system that was failing or the entire financial service industry. “As the scam unfolds, the links with the Bharatiya Janata Party are fast emerging,” the Congress said, alleging that 12 PMC directors and some other functionaries had links with the BJP.

The Shiv Smarak project has also tarnished the clean image that the BJP likes to nurture about itself. The Congress-NCP has alleged that the project, which involves the installation of a monumental statue of Shivaji on an island created on the Arabian Sea off the coast of Mumbai, is a “money making project” and claimed that the tendering process is designed to benefit one large construction conglomerate that is also involved in other giant infrastructure projects of the government. Citing “official documents” which point to “serious irregularities”, spokespersons of the Congress (Sachin Sawant) and the NCP (Nawab Malik) have alleged a Rs.1,300-crore scam.

The demand for reservation by two large social groups, the Marathas and the Dhangars, is an issue concerning a large section of voters. These groups have raised the demand throughout Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ five-year term. The Maratha demand has been partially fulfilled, but petitions against it are pending in the Supreme Court.

In August last year, Fadnavis said he was committed to reservation for Dhangars, but the matter is a bit more complicated. The Dhangars, who are at present listed as a nomadic tribe, would need a status change to Scheduled Tribe (S.T.). This will put off existing S.T. communities because the inclusion of Dhangars will eat into their share of the quota.

On October 21, more than 8.9 crore voters are expected to cast their votes across 95,000 polling stations in Maharashtra. There are 3,239 candidates vying for the 288 seats. The tenure of the current Assembly ends on November 9. Votes will be counted and the results declared on October 24.

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