It’s Sharad Pawar vs BJP in Maharashtra’s sugar bowl | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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It’s Sharad Pawar vs BJP in Maharashtra’s sugar bowl

May 09, 2024 09:10 AM IST

The 10 seats in the sugar belt, covering Ahmednagar, Pune, Solapur, and Kolhapur, are witnessing a close fight between the Mahayuti alliance and the MVA

There’s an uneasy silence in Ahmednagar’s lush green sugarcane fields as the polling day, May 13, draws closer. With the ruling Mahayuti alliance and the opposition Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) engaged in an intense battle, it’s near impossible to gauge which way the locals will sway. But one thing’s for certain: the real fight in Maharashtra’s sugar bowl appears to be between the Nationalist Congress Party (Sharadchandra Pawar)’s eponymous chief and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Sharad Pawar, 83, continues to wield influence in the region. (Bachchan Kumar/HT PHOTO)
Sharad Pawar, 83, continues to wield influence in the region. (Bachchan Kumar/HT PHOTO)

“Whoever the candidates are, a major issue is whether you want to support Pawarsaheb or BJP,” said Pravin Doke, a sugarcane farmer from Rahuri in Ahmednagar district. “The prices that we get for our crop are directly related to the policies of the government. For years, Pawar’s guiding hand was there. Some people say he has done a lot for us, while others say he could have done better and another option is needed. It will now reflect in voting.”

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The Ahmednagar-Pune-Solapur-Kolhapur belt is regarded as Maharashtra’s sugar bowl, as a significant chunk of farmland is under sugarcane cultivation. Nearly half of the state’s cooperative sugar factories are located in this belt.

After the state of Maharashtra was formed in 1960, the cooperative sector, spanning sugarcane factories, dairies, and banking, played a major role in boosting its rural economy. The cooperative sugar industry thrived in western Maharashtra, a large part of north Maharashtra and parts of central Maharashtra or Marathwada.

Successive Congress governments have adopted policies to encourage the cooperative sector. From the 1980s, as prominent Congress leaders like Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantdada Patil, and Rajarambapu Patil faded away, Sharad Pawar slowly rose to become the undisputed king of this setup, which controlled the rural economy and politics in the region. Even the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in the ’90s failed to dent Pawar’s dominance.

Things took a turn after 2014 as the Narendra Modi-led BJP began aggressively expanding the party’s influence across India. Devendra Fadnavis, who took over as Maharashtra chief minister in 2014, took up the challenge to end Pawar’s influence in the cooperative sector. He convinced several influential Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders from the cooperative field to join the BJP.

However, Pawar continued to wield influence in the region. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, out of the four seats that the NCP won in Maharashtra, three were in the sugar bowl. Then, last year, the BJP got Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar to lead a rebellion and split the NCP. Many of Sharad Pawar’s key aides are now with the BJP, but the 83-year-old is using all his experience and skills to fight back.

Little wonder, then, that the 10 seats in the sugar belt are witnessing a close fight. In the Ahmednagar district, almost every tehsil has one or two influential leaders from the cooperative sugar sector. Sharad Pawar has brought together all who oppose state revenue minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, a sugar baron whose son Sujay Vikhe-Patil is the sitting BJP MP seeking a second term. Against him, Pawar has fielded Nilesh Lanke, who quit the Ajit Pawar-led NCP faction in March.

In Baramati and Shirur, both NCP bastions, Sharad Pawar himself is handling the campaigning, as BJP has entrusted Ajit Pawar with the task of wresting the two seats. Ajit’s wife Sunetra Pawar is facing off against Sharad Pawar’s daughter and sitting MP Supriya Sule in Baramati. In Shirur, Ajit Pawar has imported Shiv Sena’s Shivajirao Adhalrao-Patil to take on sitting MP Amol Kolhe of the NCP (SP).

In 2019, the undivided NCP won the Satara constituency, but the MP — Udayanraje Bhosale, a descendant of Maratha king Shivaji Maharaj — defected to BJP six months later. Pawar’s spirited campaigning ahead of the by-elections, including the famous Satara rally where he spoke while being drenched in rain, ensured Bhonsle’s defeat. This time, the BJP has fielded Bhonsle again, while Pawar has nominated Shashikant Shinde, a labour leader and former legislator.

In Kolhapur, Pawar convinced his personal friend and another descendant of Shivaji Maharaj, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj II, to contest. Representing the Congress, Shahu II is considered a strong candidate in Kolhapur. In Madha constituency, Pawar convinced Dhairyasheel Mohite-Patil, a sugar baron who had switched over to the BJP but was then denied a ticket for the polls, to return to the NCP (SP). He’ll take on the sitting BJP MP, Ranjitsingh Nimbalkar. The return of the influential Mohite-Patil clan to the Pawar camp could also help Congress’ Praniti Shinde in Solapur against BJP’s Ram Satpute.

Over the past few weeks, Fadnavis has spent a significant amount of time in the sugar belt. Following Mohite-Patil’s departure, he brought Abhay Patil, an NCP (SP) leader from the cooperative sector, to the BJP. “He has been talking to several sugar barons, assuring their problems will be solved and ensuring they do not side with Pawar. After all, he has an opportunity to deal a severe blow to Pawar,” said a key BJP leader in the region.

However, NDA leaders are unsure of how farmers will react while polling.

A significant section of sugarcane farmers look at Pawar as someone who safeguards their interests. “Pawar understands the sector and the challenges it is facing. Voters in this belt weren’t much bothered when the Shiv Sena split [in 2022], but the way NCP was split and taken away from Pawar may not have gone down well with them,” said a BJP MP from the region.

In addition to the NCP split, two other issues are dominating the poll campaign in the region. One is falling onion prices. Farmers are worried that the crop will perish if they can’t sell it at a good price in four to five weeks before the monsoon begins. The price they get for sugarcane and milk is also a concern.

The second issue is the agitation surrounding reservation for Marathas. The community, which is dominant in most of the belt, is unhappy with how the Maharashtra government handled the matter. Several MVA leaders claim that there is a strong undercurrent among the locals over the issue of reservation.

Pawar is trying to use all these issues against the ruling alliance, said Mumbai-based political analyst Padmabhushan Deshpande. “It remains to be seen if he and his allies succeed in that.”

The outcome of the elections in these seats could have a major impact on state politics in the coming years. It could decide whether Pawar remains a force to reckon with in his eighties or his time is up. The sugar belt has consistently supported him so far. Will the summer of 2024 change it?

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