In Maharashtra's Latur district, an image that succinctly sums up people's concerns about the near future is a bone-dry Manjra river at the end of September. In years when the rain gods smile on the region, the river provides for a significant portion of the district's water supply. This year, the river only serves as a stark visual indicator of the region's water crisis, that too at a time when most parts of the state have seen excess rainfall.
As several parts of Latur witnessed severely deficient rainfall, many farmers didn't carry out sowing at all. Some farmers who did sow crops showed this reporter their produce — mainly withered soybean pods that have little value in the market.
While farmers in Latur are particularly worried due to the deficient rainfall, cultivators in other districts in Marathwada and Vidarbha also have cause for concern. Many of them expressed complaints about low prices for crops such as sugarcane, tur and soybean.
The grim state of agriculture in these regions could well have led to a surge of discontent against the BJP-Shiv Sena government in the state. However, that does not appear to be the case.
Anti-corruption plank, muscular nationalism works
The BJP-Shiv Sena combine appears to have succeeded, to a large extent, in getting its message across to the people in Latur, one of the few remaining Congress strongholds in Maharashtra. A reflection of this was seen in the statement of Ankush Khune, who hails from the village of Borwati. Speaking about why he thought that the saffron alliance was the better choice, he said, "Earlier, if the government allocated Rs 100 worth of funds for a scheme, only a small part of it would reach the poor. Now, the extent of corruption has reduced. The government has also begun implementing schemes through online mechanisms, which has ensured that schemes reach the intended beneficiaries."
This is an assertion that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had frequently made in his campaign rallies ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election and earlier Assembly elections. In Borwati village, this claim finds many takers such as Khune.
In Nagzari village, Kashinath Swami said that farmers indeed face bleak prospects this year, but added, "If there are no rains, what can the government do?"
This, too, was a sentiment that was expressed by many people across Marathwada and Vidarbha.
While some attributed the farm crisis to inclement weather, some others laid the blame at the door of administrative officials, rather than the political leadership. One of them, Devidas Kunmethe from Yavatmal district’s Ghatanji, said, “The government has devised good schemes for gas cylinders, roads, etc. But officials do not implement them properly on the ground.”
While low prices for farm produce continue to anger cultivators across the state, the past record of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) does not inspire confidence in many. Chandrakant Nilvarn, who lives in Parbhani district’s Manvat town said, “This year, while the government fixed the minimum support price for moong dal at Rs 7,000 per quintal, most farmers are actually getting only around Rs 4,000 per quintal. We are indeed suffering because of this. But the previous Congress-NCP government was no better when it came to ensuring remunerative prices. No government genuinely cares about the agricultural class, no matter which party is in power.”
Further, emotive issues that appeal to nationalistic sentiments also appear to be affecting voters' choices. Sandip Mane, a school teacher from Mahapoor village, said, "In the Lok Sabha election, I voted for the NDA because of Modi. This time, I am yet to make a decision, and local issues will matter more for me in the Assembly election. However, the surgical strikes and the abrogation of Article 370 were certainly steps that were praiseworthy."
Congress-NCP supporters cite Vilasrao Deshmukh’s legacy, agrarian distress
As far as the Congress is concerned, its chief campaigner in Latur, effectively speaking, is a person who passed away seven years ago — Vilasrao Deshmukh. The former Maharashtra chief minister has a demigod-like status in the district, and even people who now support the BJP or Shiv Sena praise his work in the region. Deshmukh is widely credited for improving access to basic services such as water, electricity and roads.
By and large, people in Latur who expressed an inclination to vote for the Congress said that they would do so because of Deshmukh’s legacy. One of them was Sambhaji Idekar, who said, “Amit Deshmukh (Vilasrao’s son and the sitting MLA from Latur City) has done very little for us. In fact, he has barely ever visited us to ask about our problems. His father would visit the constituency more regularly, and even when he could not meet us, he would ensure that our problems would get resolved.”
The Congress has re-nominated Amit from Latur (City) and Dheeraj Deshmukh (Vilasrao’s youngest son) from Latur (Rural).
Some others criticised the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra for not doing enough to alleviate the water shortage and provide financial support to farmers. Prem Bhagwan Patil, the sarpanch of Raiwadi village in Latur and a Congress supporter, said, “This government only knows how to make tall promises, but has no concern for farmers. Crops have failed for most of us, but no assistance is forthcoming from the government.”
At Vasangaon, Haridas Jadhav was critical of the media’s “biased” coverage of political parties as he said, “When BJP leaders hold election rallies, television channels give them continuous coverage. But rallies of Opposition leaders only find a passing mention. Is this not unfair?”
Speaking about why the Congress continues to remain relatively strong in Latur, senior journalist Atul Deulgaonkar said, “Over several decades, the Congress had nurtured an economy in rural Maharashtra that was centred around sugar factories and district co-operative banks. These factories and banks had created a network that would sustain the influence of Congress. It can be estimated that on average, a sugar factory provides employment to about 10,000 families. In Latur, this network is still intact and so, the Congress remains relatively strong here compared to other parts of the state.”
Deulgaonkar adds, “The entry of leaders of the Congress and NCP into the saffron fold also holds significance in this context. When leaders like Sujay Vikhe Patil cross over into the BJP, the entire political economy associated with the individual goes into the saffron party’s hands.”
Among those who said that they would choose the Congress due to its network of influence was Kashinath Kale, a farmer from Latur’s Ausa taluka. Kale said, “People associated with the Congress are in control of important institutions in this district. That is why it is better to vote for the party here.”
Can farm woes be BJP-Shiv Sena’s Achilles’ heel?
Past experience has shown that even where the BJP has a strong base, it has not been able to counter charges of not doing enough to alleviate farm distress. In December 2018, this was a major reason cited for the fall of the Raman Singh-led government in Chhattisgarh.
However, Chandrakant Nilvarn, quoted earlier in this article, contends that such a scenario is unlikely to unfold in Maharashtra. He says, “In Chhattisgarh, the BJP government had been in power for three terms, and thus, it faced the ire of different sections of the society. In Maharashtra, although the present government has failed to deliver on several fronts, many people would be willing to give it another chance.”
Indeed, conversations with voters in rural Maharashtra appear to lend credence to this view. If the Congress finds itself on shaky ground in Latur, where it has a strong base, it may find it difficult to challenge the incumbent government in most other parts of the state.
Updated Date: Oct 07, 2019 21:19:43 IST