Vidarbha is an unforgiving place, parched, dry and restive. It is a place of waiting — for the rains, for dams, for a harvest that may never come. Lately, there’s been a storm brewing in these 11 arid districts.
“All of Maharashtra is getting richer, but here in Vidarbha, everything is standing still,” says Sachin Gawande, 30, a graduate and farmer from Risod town in Akola. “Ours remains the most underdeveloped region in the state.” Speaking softly, almost apologetically, Gawande talks about the neglect faced by this region, where more than 100,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past 10 years; where region irrigation and relief projects have become mired in controversy amid incessant delays and allegations of kickbacks.
In this traditional Congress stronghold, crowds throng the party’s rallies. Gawande, in fact, has just attended one such event with his friends and thousands of other villagers.
But as they watch Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan take off in his helicopter, the despair takes on shades of bitterness and one by one they begin to discuss how they are, many for the first time, considering alternatives to India’s Grand Old Party. “I am a Congress supporter, but I care about the country,” says Gawande. “This time, I feel, the country needs Modi.” What about the Aam Aadmi Party as an alternative?
Across the region, the response from voters is similar: “They are good people; their candidate is also good. But these elections are a different ball game altogether.” Chavan, for his part, has spent most of his speech in Risod attacking Modi’s claims of development, calling him a liar and someone who “buys off news channels”. The local BJP candidate is ‘useless’, Gawande says. “But when I vote, I will be supporting Modi.” Across this arid region, there is no escaping the sense that there is just one Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, the same one in every constituency. On election banners and party posters, his face stares out at you most challengingly, the brightest and biggest of all the faces on the lotus-bloom banners.
“Hasn’t Modi quit the BJP yet?” says Salim Shaikh, tongue-in-cheek, in Gadchiroli. “All I’ve heard is ‘Modi ki sarkaar (Modi’s government)’. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t even consider it a party campaign.” Salim, 35, runs a roadside eatery located right opposite a BJP poll office on the Nagpur-Gadchiroli highway. The walls of the eatery are painted saffron; a Modi calendar hangs to one side. “Those people came here and put this up,” he says, pointing to the BJP office opposite. Staring out from across the road is a poster of the local BJP candidate, backed by an even larger image of the same stern-looking Modi as on the calendar.
In Sawala, Amravati, where more than eight farmers have committed suicide over the past ten years, a local Congress leader has been won over. He begins by striding in to his two-room village home, shaking hands all around and introducing himself as a proud Congressman. His sofa accommodates just three people; the rest of the villagers stand, giving him an audience. Photos of him shaking hands with local legislator and former state Assembly deputy speaker Vasant Purke adorn one wall. “[Former chief minister] Vilasrao Deshmukh came all the way here to campaign for me when I stood for panchayat samiti elections,” he says, smiling broadly. Deshmukh invoked, the conversation veers towards the elections.
“Listen, I’m not like them [the villagers],” he says, switching from Marathi to English, and asking that he not be named. “I’m a study person. I see news all the time… And that’s why Modi should be the prime minister.” Asked how his strong sense of identification with the Congress can make room for support for the rival BJP, he says it is because he can see that change is inevitable. “The Congress’s lack of a strong leadership gave Modi a chance to jump into the vacuum. See, Modi is a strong figure who has done so much. We don’t have anyone to match him,” he adds. “Because of my study, I realise that if TV media is showing him continuously, then there has to be something in him. Don’t you guys in the media also study? If he hasn’t done so much work, why are you constantly showing him and writing about him?” It would appear that Modi has stepped in to fill a number of vacuums.
Incumbent Amravati Shiv Sena candidate Anandrao Adsul, who is up against the Nationalist Congress Party’s star candidate, popular southern star Navneet Rana, has a smiling Modi on his posters, a larger-than-life Modi standing in cutouts outside his office and photos of a smiling Modi hugging Adsul on his billboards. Sena founder and late chief Bal Thackeray appears as a far smaller inducement, his face smiling out of one corner of the posters. Current party chief Uddhav Thackeray gets a thumbnail mugshot. Meanwhile, in the battle between the Modi machinery and the Congress, the silence of the latter is befuddling, even to supporters.
Minutes after the rally in Akola’s Risod village, 18-year-old Abdul Rizwan rushes to catch a glimpse of the CM’s helicopter taking off. “[Local Congress candidate] Hidayat Patel is a very good man. I will vote for him,” he says. “I will vote for Sonia Gandhi. Modi is a wolf. He has been involved in the riots. How can anyone vote for him?” The Congress, on the other hand, has brought about so many schemes, he adds. Which ones does he know of? He thinks hard, gives up with a smile and says, “Bhaijaan, I don’t know any of the schemes, but I swear on you they are doing a very good job.”
In Yavatmal, the heart of India’s agrarian crisis, 21-year-old college student Pankaj Giti sounds angry when he talks about the Congress government. Giti was 16 when his father, Wamanrao, committed suicide after his crop failed for the second consecutive year, leaving him with a debt of Rs 1 lakh. He describes Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi as a tourist.
“He came here, made [farm widow] Kalawati famous. But his visit didn’t help one bit,” he says. He is impressed with Modi, but not for any of the most popular reasons. “Modi said that Sharad Pawar is more interested in cricketers than farmers, despite being the agriculture minister. The fact that he could even say this shows that he has strength,” he says, adding, “I have watched my mother travel nearly 50 kilometres, time after time, to beg for the compensation we were promised. She would often take my disabled brother with her; still she was spurned. For me, anyone who can challenge those who have been in power and failed us, will be an ally.”
In Ghot, a small town in southern Gadchiroli, government employee Rushi Yerme, 58, is sitting at a chai adda at 6 am on April 10. Voting will begin in an hour. Yerme is known in these parts for his fortune-telling ability. “In my youth, when I was having trouble finding work, Yerme read my palm and told me that I would get a job in a few days. If I didn’t, he would stop reading palms, he said. I got a job a few days later,” says one local. Yerme has never missed a single election, regardless of the local Naxals’ calls for boycotts. So will it be RaGa or NaMo this time, in his opinion? “Rahul Gandhi is in for a bad time, that much I can tell,” says Yerme. “As for, Modi… Modi is going to be shocked. Ab ki baar… it will be BJP’s sarkaar, not Modi’s.”