Rural crisis and unemployment are issues waiting to be tapped by an imaginative Opposition in Maharashtra but the BJP-Shiv Sena combine still harps on emotive non-issues.in Mumbai
`BANKRUPT' seems to be the operative word as Maharashtra, the second most populous and prosperous State, goes to the Assembly polls in October. It is not only the State's treasury that is bankrupt, the political parties that are contesting the elections too are in terms of ideas.
The ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance government is desperately trying to rustle up something that it can boast about. It does not have much to show for its five years in power. Yet, instead of highlighting the stark inequalities and governance failures, the Opposition Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (S.S.-BJP) alliance has chosen to focus on non-issues such as the controversy over Veer Savarkar, the campaign to demolish the tomb of Chatrapati Shivaji's general Afzal Khan at the Pratapgarh Fort in Satara and the Congress president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins.
Not that there is any dearth of real problems within the State. First, the agrarian crisis is acute here. Agriculture and allied activities slid to a negative growth rate of - 1.9 per cent in 2003-04, according to the State government's Economic Survey. Farmers' suicides have been a recurring phenomenon in the Vidarbha region. Since June, more than 100 suicides were reported when the monsoon was delayed by a month.
In the last election, the Congress lost in Vidarbha, once considered its stronghold. This time, there will be a strong fight to regain its dominance. Parties are trying to woo people in this region by putting the long-standing demand for separate statehood back in focus. While the movement for separate statehood does not cut much ice with voters, it is attractive to local politicians. The BJP and the NCP have spoken about this demand, but the Shiv Sena has taken a stand against separate statehood. Several governments have neglected the development of this region in eastern Maharashtra.
The State also faces acute water and power problems. Many regions have seen severe drought in the last few years. Only 16 per cent of the gross cropped area is irrigated, compared to the national average of 39 per cent, according to Ashok Dhawale, a leader of the All India Kisan Sabha. With water projects left incomplete, large parts of rural Maharashtra face a severe water shortage. Most places, except the big cities, have power cuts for several hours everyday owing to load-shedding. The State is power deficit, with a 2,000 MW shortfall.
In an effort to temper rural discontent, the Congress-NCP government promised several concessions, including free power and interest waivers for farmers just after elections. However, farmers are not taken in. "This is just a temporary measure. Only farmers who can afford pumps and those having big farmhouses will benefit. Instead of free power, we would prefer to get reliable power supply. It is fine to waive the interest, but how are farmers going to pay back their loans?" said Yashwant Zhade, a Kisan Sabha activist from Wardha in the Vidarbha region.
In the tribal areas of Nandurbar in northern Maharashtra and Jawhar, just an hour's drive from Mumbai, the incidence of malnutrition deaths is alarming since the early 1990s. Little has been done to improve people's access to health facilities or to provide them land or a livelihood. "Every hour in Maharashtra, there is an avoidable death of one tribal infant," said Dr. Abhay Shukla, a researcher from the Centre for Enquiry in Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT). Around 76 per cent of children in Maharashtra are anaemic. Among the tribal children, 83 per cent are anaemic (Frontline, June 7, 2002). The rural crisis has left several farm labourers without work. The employment guarantee scheme, once a buffer for the poor during lean times, is now not implemented properly and ridden with corruption.
Employment opportunities in both rural and urban areas are shrinking. Factory jobs have been continuously falling, says the State's Economic Survey. The self-immolation of two retrenched Tata Power workers outside the company headquarters in the commercial hub of Mumbai in 2003 was a poignant reminder of the severity of unemployment. The Shiv Sena tried to cash in on the scramble for work in Mumbai by launching a campaign against north Indian migrants in 2003 (`Targeting outsiders', December 19, 2003) when its activists attacked applicants who visited the city for the railway recruitment exams. This strategy backfired and the saffron alliance lost a large chunk of its vote in the city during the Lok Sabha elections. Numerous cooperative bank scams, some involving politicians from the ruling alliance, have severely damaged the government's credibility among the middle classes. Several depositors lost their savings overnight when these banks collapsed.
The commercialisation of education and the brazen misuse of power by education barons have also touched a chord among the middle classes. When the Justice Jagirdar Committee said that fees for medical and engineering colleges should be reduced, many private institutes threatened to shut down stating that it was not feasible to run them with such a fee structure. Among those who run these colleges are top leaders in the ruling parties.
IN the battle of the giants in the State, it is rebel candidates and small parties that could tilt the balance in the eye-to-eye battle between the ruling alliance and its SS-BJP opponents.
Going by the trends in the Assembly segment-wise break-up of the Lok Sabha elections in May, the S.S.-BJP with 142 segments leads over the Congress-NCP alliance by just four (see table). The alliance got a larger vote share - 44.08 per cent as compared to the SS-BJP's 42.21 per cent. The Peasants and Workers Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), gangster Arun Gawli's Akhil Bharatiya Sena and a Congress rebel from Vidarbha lead in the eight other segments. Their support and that of rebel candidates could decide the fate of either alliance.
Smaller parties could also eat into the vote share of the Congress-NCP. Although the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), the various factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) did not lead in any of the segments, their votes could affect the Congress-NCP'S chances of victory in several constituencies. The BSP vote made the Congress lose eight of the Lok Sabha seats. Many BSP candidates were Congress rebels. But not for the BSP, the Congress(I)-NCP would have been ahead of the saffron alliance. Instead, it fell behind with 23 seats, while the S.S.-BJP got 25.
The saffron alliance dominated in the coastal Konkan and the deprived central Marathwada region. Sugar barons owing allegiance to the Congress and the NCP still control the relatively prosperous western Maharashtra. The results in Mumbai, north Maharashtra could prove decisive. Until now a saffron stronghold, Mumbai voted for the Congress alliance in the Lok Sabha elections.
One factor that may save the Congress alliance is rain. After many years, a good monsoon may have dampened discontent in the countryside. "Nature is on our side," said Anand Gadgil, the Congress spokesperson. Now, they need to get the rebels on their side as well.