In Maharashtra's Vidarbha, voters choose livelihood over nationalism and Article 370, elect activist over 10-year MLA
Amravati falls in the agrarian region of Vidarbha, where the BJP has suffered the biggest setback.
Amravati falls in the agrarian region of Vidarbha, where the BJP has suffered the biggest setback.
Considering it is Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' home turf, the setback is even starker.
The Congress-NCP alliance that won 11 out of 62 seats in the region in 2014 is up to 21 five years down the line.
It was a classic case of David versus Goliath. In the constituency of Morshi in Maharashtra's Amravati district, Anil Bonde took on Devendra Bhuyar. Bonde had been a sitting MLA for 10 years. He is the agriculture minister in the state cabinet. Bhuyar, in contrast, is an activist with only farm agitations to boast about.
On 24 October, 2019, among the few surprises thrown up by the electorate of Maharashtra, Bhuyar's convincing win with a margin of about 10,000 votes over Bonde ranked right up there. He is the son of a farmer with a marginal landholding. Bonde belongs to the richest party in India.
Ahead of the elections, many pundits expected the ruling alliance of BJP-Shiv Sena to sweep the state. However, the opposition put up a surprisingly respectful performance bagging 104 seats out of 288. Many believe the economic slowdown and agrarian crisis contributed to BJP-Shiv Sena's underwhelming performance in spite of a relatively dormant opposition, and the defeat of the agriculture minister himself perhaps adds credence to it. The losses suffered by the ruling alliance have mainly come from rural areas, while urban centres have saved them the blushes.
"We had 48,000 hectares of orange orchards in our constituency," said Bhuyar, member of Raju Shetty's Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana, in a telephonic interview. "In the past 10 years under Bonde, 50 percent of those have dried up. Orange orchards are the lifeline of our constituency. And he was unable to save that in spite of being a minister for the past five years."
Bhuyar said he didn't deviate from local issues throughout the campaign, even though the BJP leaders tried to cite nationalism. "Bharat Mata Ki Jai has its shelf life," he said. "I kept my focus on the lack of irrigation schemes in our constituency and the incomplete projects. In 2009, he promised a project of processing oranges. Politics of our constituency revolves around it. The project never concluded. People saw through his skulduggery and realised we need to send someone in the Assembly who will raise our voice."
After Bhuyar's dramatic win, Shetty wrote an emotional note, comparing Bhuyar's win to his own 15 years ago, for it was based on ideals and activism. "Even the binoculars shouldn't be able to spot a stain on your career," he advised Bhuyar in the note and wished him all the best.
Amravati falls in the agrarian region of Vidarbha, where the BJP has suffered the biggest setback. Considering it is Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' home turf, the setback is even starker. The Congress-NCP alliance that won 11 out of 62 seats in the region in 2014 is up to 21 five years down the line. Their vote share has also increased. In contrast, BJP is down to 29 from 44 seats. Shiv Sena is constant at four.
Incidentally, Vidarbha is also the region that accounted for the most number of farm suicides in the past five years. An RTI query had revealed that farm suicides under Fadnavis nearly doubled and Amravati division, or east Vidarbha, accounted for 36.5 percent of them.
Kishor Tiwari, farm leader with Shiv Sena who chaired the state government task force Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission, sees a direct correlation between the two. "BJP had said there is no opposition in the state. But the electorate has turned out to be the opposition," he said. "The chief minister's farm loan waiver did not help farmers and it led to a serious credit crisis across the state. Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan didn't work and crop insurance turned out to be a failure too. All of that came together on the voting day."
Most of these issues persisted before the Lok Sabha elections too. But the BJP managed to win in spite of them because the nationalistic sentiments ran high, said Tiwari. "Vidarbha is a cotton belt," he said. "You cannot hope to win on Article 370 when 10 kilos of cotton is being sold for Rs 370."
Many say the disillusionment among the cadres of BJP contributed to the setback in Vidarbha as well. Nitin Gadkari, a prominent Vidarbha leader, was said to have been sidelined, causing distress among BJP's loyal cadres. Three-time MLA, Chandrashekhar Bawankule, and a close aide of Gadkari was also unceremoniously dropped from the candidate list, alienating the Teli community that has a significant presence in Vidarbha.
Even in Marathwada, another agrarian region grappling with farm suicides, Tiwari said the dent is visible even though it isn't as stark as Vidarbha. "Political heavyweights like Pankaja Munde and Arjun Khopkar lost," he said. "Several leaders that had won by huge margins five years ago ended up sneaking out a narrow win."
In June 2017, Fadnavis announced the "biggest ever" farm loan waiver of Rs 34,000 crore, which remains incomplete till today.
Several farmers missed out and Minister of Revenue Sanjay Rathod had told Firstpost that it was counterproductive and would affect the ruling alliance adversely on the day of the results.
The prolonged loan waiver had a direct impact on the credit disbursement of agriculture.
The financial year of 2017-18 clocked a minus 50 percent of year-on-year growth in terms of agriculture credit disbursement, according to the May 2018 report of SLBC.
In May 2019, Fadnavis okayed Rs 87,000 crore credit plan for agriculture. He urged the banks to give maximum loans to farmers by being sensitive in order to achieve the target.
However, as of 15 September 2019, only 45 percent of the targeted crop loan disbursement for Kharif crops was achieved in Maharashtra, while the season is about to conclude. In the agrarian regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha, the targeted disbursement is even worse at 31 percent and 41 percent respectively.
As far as the prime minister's crop insurance scheme is concerned, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had asked how 90 lakh farmers from the state could be ineligible for the scheme.
Tiwari said the chief minister made the mistake of depending on the rosy feedback from officers and his people in the war room. "And they are still not willing to accept their mistakes," he said. "To learn a bit of discipline, BJP should stay out of power for five years and pass on the baton to Shiv Sena."
Observers believe the agrarian distress and unemployment in rural areas coupled with local factors in different regions ensured the result we got. While local factors differed from region to region, agrarian distress remained common. If disillusionment among BJP cadres was the secondary factor in Vidarbha, opportunistic defections played a role in Western Maharashtra, said CPM activist and farm leader Ajit Navale.
In Ahmednagar, for example, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, who recently defected to the BJP, had said they would win all the 12 seats in the district. "But they ended up winning only two," he said. "The NCP's campaign focussed on agrarian issues and hammered in the backstabbing and opportunistic nature of the defections. Except for Sharad Pawar, the opposition did not have a state-wide face. But the local candidates mobilised farmers their own respective constituencies and harped on local issues. That did the trick."
Yet, Raju Shetty believes the opposition couldn't channelise the anger on the ground as much as it should have, considering the gravity of the crisis. "The opposition did not do much in the past five years," he said. "It is not enough to wake up only before the elections. Pawar said he would be traversing the state in the next five years. Let's see if he is able to eradicate the lethargy within the opposition."
Shetty said the opposition must participate and mobilise people's movements in the coming years because the government hasn't changed and their policies aren't changing either. "Money is not the only thing that can win you elections," he said. "Our Devendra Bhuyar did not spend more than 20-22 lakhs and defeated the agriculture minister. He kept fighting even after being persecuted."
Bhuyar has 68 charges against him. He said they are the result of his incessant agitations and campaigns on the ground for farmers over the past 10 years. "The administration is pressurised to not entertain me," he said. "I was attacked just ahead of the polling on 21 October."
Unidentified assailants shot at Bhuyar and set his car ablaze. While he survived the attack, Bhuyar said it was a planned one by his opponent. Bonde did not respond to calls and messages.
Upon asked what cues the opposition could take from his campaign, Bhuyar said, "It is simple. People stand by you when you stand with them."
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