During the run-up to the Assembly elections in October 2014, on live television, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari needled the audience to take to the streets for a separate Vidarbha. “Whenever there is a demand, some 50 people gather somewhere for five minutes and then the agitation fizzles out,’’ he grumbled. “Fight like they did for Telangana and we shall persuade the Congress to co-operate with us as we did with them on Telangana.’’
But that incitement left the roomful of lawyers, social activists and marketing professionals rather unmoved. They did not take to the streets and I do not think they ever will. I have a fair idea why. It is not the people of Vidarbha who want to separate from Maharashtra – that is a dream of only some politicians and a handful of Hindi-speaking businessmen who were edged out of the reckoning when Central Provinces and Berar integrated with Maharashtra and they were superceded in terms of wealth and influence by the industrialists of Bombay.
Of the four main political parties in Maharashtra – the Congress, the NCP, the BJP and the Shiv Sena – two have always wanted a separate Vidarbha: the BJP because it did not have a presence in other parts of Maharashtra and a separate Vidarbha would have given it another state to rule. The NCP wants a separation for the exact opposite reason – it does not have a presence in Vidarbha and separating the region would mean it would get hegemony over the rest of Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena has very little presence in the region but has an emotional attachment to Vidarbha – Bal Thackeray’s mother hailed from Amravati and the Sena does not wish to lose that district. The Congress has a sound political reason to oppose the separation – most of its legislators have generally come from this region, which gave it an upper hand over all other parties including the NCP in the era of coalition politics.
Things, of course, changed drastically in 2014 – the Congress was entirely wiped out in Vidarbha during the Lok Sabha elections and during the Assembly polls it was the BJP which took 44 of the 66 seats from the region (the Congress is now winning wherever the BJP is losing in local polls). A separate Vidarbha now would mean the BJP would have to give up Maharashtra – the piquant situation here is that for the first time ever, a chief minister comes from Nagpur. And its member of parliament – Gadkari-- was recently labelled the top performing minister in the Modi cabinet. So the people of Vidarbha now see no reason why their region should remain backward without having to dissociate from Maharashtra.
The BJP is thus in a fix, a veritable Catch-22 situation, over statehood for Vidarbha. I, therefore, believe Devendra Fadnavis when, at the start of the winter session of the legislature currently underway in Nagpur, he assured agitating Shiv Sainiks that there would be no separation of the region from Maharashtra. Sainiks had taken to the streets because the state’s Advocate-general, Sreehari Aney, who hails from Nagpur had called for a separate Vidarbha at a public meeting in the city. He has repeated the demand in Aurangabad this week and this time it is the Congress crying for his resignation for defying the chief minister’s stand while he continues to be an officer of the Maharashtra government.
Gadkari, in his arguments, always talks of Vidarbha’s forest cover and its thermal power stations, which he suggests would be enough to sustain a separate state. But my late friend, the former Maharashtra finance minister Dr Shrikant Jichkar, had once told me that people who forward such arguments do not really understand the devolution of finances – much of the revenue from the forests would devolve to the Centre and Vidarbha would receive even less than Assam does with its huge oil reserves. Then, again, much of the electricity from the thermal stations is drawn by Bombay which pays Nagpur handsomely in return. Where does all that money go?
But it is the newspapers which are perhaps the best indicators of people’s orientations. Any English-language newspaper, including local dailies, which have looked to Delhi or the Hindi-speaking North for sustenance, have bombed and have had to be shut down. Only those with a sharp Maharashtra focus have survived in Nagpur.
Quo vadis, then, Vidarbha?