2019 Lok Sabha elections: Which party will north Maharashtra pick?

As the region spread across six Parliamentary constituencies goes to polls in less than a month, much water has flown under the Godavari River, after the strike in 2017 and the Long March in 2018
By Ketaki Ghoge | Hindustan Times, Mumbai, Mumbai
UPDATED ON APR 07, 2019 01:38 PM IST

Two of the most iconic agrarian movements against the Fadnavis-led ruling government in the last four years, marked by striking images of farmers upturning milk cans on the roads and of callused, bleeding feet of the tribal cultivators, marching into Mumbai, were from the state’s north Maharashtra region.

As the region spread across six Parliamentary constituencies goes to polls in less than a month, much water has flown under the Godavari River, after the strike in 2017 and the Long March in 2018. But the agrarian discontent and the dissatisfaction among tribals is still simmering. These are among the two central poll issues for the region that voted completely saffron in 2014 polls.

The BJP has five sitting MPs here, while one constituency, Nashik, is with the Shiv Sena. Beyond agrarian distress and drought that has affected all five districts here, caste calculations in individual seats, Maratha vs OBC vs Scheduled Tribes polarisation will also have an impact on the results. Aware of the potential losses from the region, the BJP has turned down candidature for two of its sitting MPs from the region, three-term MP from Dindori Harishchandra Chavan and two-term MP from Jalgaon AT Patil. But this has, in turn, led to internal factionalism in the BJP. The Congress-NCP has an opportunity to improve their tally here, but it remains to be seen whether these parties can actually make use of an opportunity. While the Congress could win back the tribal Nandurbar belt, party bastion where it had lost no election until 2014; the NCP could potentially win Dindori or even Nashik due to local demographics and internal rivalries.

AGRARIAN DISTRESS AND DROUGHT

Despite the loan waiver announced by the Fadnavis government after the farmers’ strike in 2017, a majority of farmers are dissatisfied with the ruling government. The goodwill of the loan waiver granted to as many as 30lakh-plus farmers is not seen on ground zero.

And even those who got the benefit now stand at the threshold of debt, thanks to drought. The drought this year has aggravated the disquiet, with farmers failing to recover, in many cases, even the production cost of crops. “This year, I couldn’t even recover the production cost of planting tomatoes over my two acres. I don’t have the money to sow in June,” said Kailash Kandbahale, a farmer from Nashik district.

Despite this, Kandbahale may vote for the Shiv Sena’s Nashik candidate Hemant Godse and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “No government is good for farmers. The previous government was full of thieves and this one is made up of bandits. But Modi is good for the country’s security. This is a urban constituency, which will anyway vote for the Sena, then why should I waste my vote,” Kandbahale asked.

He said that there was no Modi wave like in 2014, but the PM continued to have a favourable image and was a deciding factor in urban areas. His extended family in Dinodri, a largely rural constituency, however, will be backing Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) candidate Dhanraj Mahale.

Political observers said that agrarian crisis continues to be one of the strongest poll issues that will go against the ruling government in rural areas. From Jalgaon’s cotton and banana cultivators to Nashik’s onion, grape and vegetable farmers, there is no cultivator who is unaffected by the volatile market conditions and current drought. “There is a clear urban-rural divide vis-a-vis class as well as caste, when it comes to BJP support and opposition. The middle class, also from upper castes based in cities, prefer Modi and the BJP. In rural areas, there is anger against the Modi government and this is most apparent among lower castes and farmers,” said a senior editor with a local, vernacular newspaper.

In Nashik, for instance, there are nearly 8 lakh urban voters, of which a majority may be tilted in favour of the Sena-BJP, while around 6 lakh voters are from the rural areas of the constituency. In Dindori, a largely rural constituency, the agrarian distress, would have a greater impact.

 

THE TRIBAL BELT

The north Maharashtra’s tribal belt, across the reserved constituencies of Dindori, Nandurbar and parts of Nashik, is unhappy with the government over the processing of their Forest Rights Act claims. Last year, 30,000 tribal cultivators had marched from Mumbai to Nashik seeking justice and speedier disbursal of claims that will give them ownership rights over their land.

“Barring Surgana, where CPI (M) MLA JP Gavit followed up on the 12,000 claims, the government has totally failed to meet the promises made to the tribals. This is a serious issue, as is the ongoing agrarian unrest,” said Ashok Dhawale, CPI (M) leader and head of the All India Kisan Sabha that played a central role in both the protests.

Gavit, the MLA from Akkalkuwa is also the CPI (M) candidate in the Dindori seat, turning the poll table into a three-cornered fight. Gavit, the man who led the marching 30,000 farmers, is a popular tribal leader. But this advantage to the Opposition may be lost with Gavit contesting the Dindori seat. “We had sought this seat from the NCP and they should have given it to us. They are after all the bigger party. We are contesting this seat to win, but there is a chance of the opposition votes being split between the NCP and us,” said Dhawale.

The other subtle narrative in the tribal areas against the ruling government is the latter’s extension of economic and social benefits of tribal development department to the Dhangar community (shepherd). The Dhangars have been agitating for reservation in the Scheduled Tribe category for long. As the government could not deliver on this, fearing a backlash from the community, a cabinet decision was taken just ahead of the code of conduct to make all tribal linked schemes available to the Dhangars.

Congress MLA and candidate for Nandurbar, KC Padvi’s campaign takes up this issue and this could go against BJP candidate Heena Gavit. While Gavit is not very popular, BJP leaders say in Nandurbar city, support for Modi will lift her chances of winning the seat.

 

CASTE POLARISATION

Caste calculations in each constituency will have an impact on the results as will the overall polarization between the Marathas versus the Other Backward Castes (OBC).The state’s 16% reservation to the Maratha community has not gone down well with the OBCs, who form a significant chunk of voters in North Maharashtra. In Nashik a direct caste-based poll battle is likely with NCP’s Sameer Bhujbal, a Mali (OBC) being pitted against Sena’s Hemant Godse (Maratha). In Dhule, BJP union minister Subhash Bhamre, an OBC, will be pitted against Congress candidate and MLA Kunal Patil (Maratha).

In the case of Dhule, minority votes will also make an impact as Malegaon that has significant Muslim votes, falls in this constituency. These votes will go to the Congress, but may even lead to counter polarization, as it has for so many years in favour of the BJP.

Even in a reserved seat like Nandurbar, for instance, the Maratha vs OBC factor will get played out with Marathas in this case voting against Gavit and in favour of the Congress, while OBCs may vote in favour of the BJP.

The advantage in the polls will go to the party where the alliances are working together and the party organisation is activated. The BJP seems to score better than the remaining three parties when it comes to keeping its election machinery well oiled. The decision over Jalgaon candidate, who was changed at the last minute is an indication that the BJP is not leaving much to chance. After minister Girish Mahajan’s close aide district Jalgaon chief Uday Wagh’s wife and MLC Smita Wagh was given a ticket, the party witnessed opposition from ground level cadre. A survey showed that Wagh was not popular and may not succeed against Deokar, which led to the change in the candidate.

“The BJP is responsive and this may save us from the loss of one seat. The change was also done to dilute the rebellion by the sitting MP AT Patil,” said a senior BJP leader.

The Congress, for a change, taking a leaf from the opponent also succeeded in stemming a rebellion from its nine-term MP Manikrao Gavit in Nandurbar. Gavit was upset as his son Bharat was not given the ticket and Bharat Gavit had threatened to contest polls as an independent. Central Congress leaders met Gavit and placated him after a half an hour meeting.

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