Lok Sabha elections 2019: Who will be the catcher in the dry Vidarbha region of Maharashtra?
Just like the mercury, the political battle is heating up in Vidarbha, which goes to polls in the first two phases – April 11 and 18. Facing drought, farmer suicides and Maoists, will the region give another chance to the ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine that managed a clean sweep in 2014? Or will there be a mixed mandate like 2009, when the BJP-Sena and Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) got five seats each?
The region is broadly divided into two parts — eastern and western Vidarbha. Eastern Vidarbha comprises Nagpur, Bhandara, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Gondia and Wardha districts, while Akola, Amravati, Buldhana, Yavatmal and Washim constitute the western Vidarbha.
The ruling BJP-Shiv Sena combine, which won 10 seats in 2014, had won nine of the 10 seats in 2004. Apart from the Modi wave, their victory was attributed to the sense of being neglected, which began during the Congress-NCP government’s tenure in the state. Irrigation backlog (provision of less than required funds for irrigation projects) compared to other regions, especially western Maharashtra, load-shedding and poor infrastructure were seen as prime examples of it.
The ruling BJP-Sena government tried to change the perception.
Sudhir Mungantiwar, state finance minister, who hails from Chandrapur, said they brought about many changes in the past five years.
“The BJP governments at the Centre and in the state constructed more national highways than what were built since 1960. The government reduced power tariffs for industries, giving relief to the sector. We focussed on completing long-pending irrigation projects such as Gosikhurd, which will help turn the dry land into irrigated, and benefit farmers,” he said.
“The government also improved rail connectivity, by starting new routes and work on developing airports in Akola, Amravati and Chandrapur.”
While the BJP-Sena is banking on development, the Congress and NCP have formed United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) with a few like-minded parties to win back the territory.
Amid the claims and blame game, the real question is – Have things really changed for farmers, who are battling agricultural crisis for several years now? Not much, say farm activists.
“Nothing has changed for rural economy in the past five years. All promises of 50% profit over input cost and higher minimum support price (MSP) for farmers have remained just on paper. Even today, the farmers are selling tur at ₹5,000 a quintal, which is far less than the ₹5,650 a quintal MSP declared by the Centre. This is the case for almost all farm produce,” said Vijay Jawandhia, a farm activist from Nagpur.
In 2018, the region saw 1,297 of the total 2,244 farmer suicides in Vidarbha and Marathwada. Between January 2015 and December 2018, in the tenure of the current state government, 12,006 farmers committed suicides, according to the data compiled by the state relief and rehabilitation department.
Mungantiwar insisted that relief efforts were on. “Farmer suicides are a result of bad policies of the previous Congress-NCP government. We are trying our best to reduce them. It will take some time, as things have gone out of hands,” he said.
The region will decide the future of several political heavyweights such as union transport minister Nitin Gadkari (Nagpur), Hansraj Ahir, minister of state for home affairs (contesting for the fifth time from Chandrapur) and former state Congress president and deputy chairman of the state legislative council Manikrao Thakre (Yavatmal-Washim).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will kick off the campaign from Wardha district on April 1, and is expected to hold several rallies in the state.
In western Vidarbha, the BJP-Sena is hoping to retain all four seats, mainly on PM Modi’s popularity. Of the four seats, Amravati will witness a close contest between five-time Shiv Sena MP Anandrao Adsul and former Telugu actor Navneet Rana, a candidate of Yuva Swabhimani Party (YSP) that has joined the Opposition’s alliance, which also includes the Rajendra Gavai-led Republican Party of India (RPI). The RPI has a significant presence in the constituency. Both Adsul and Rana are contesting against each other for the second time. In 2014, Rana was defeated by more than 1.37 lakh votes.
Yavatmal-Washim, which has seen a high number of farmer suicides, will see a fight between Thakre and Shiv Sena’s two-term MP Bhawna Gawli.
The contest between the two alliances will be crucial in eastern Vidarbha, especially in Nagpur.
The Congress has fielded former BJP MP Nana Patole to challenge Gadkari, a popular leader from Nagpur. Patole comes from the Kunbi community, which has a strong presence in Nagpur and many other constituencies. Patole rejoined the Congress after resigning as a BJP MP from Bhandara-Gondia in December 2017.
He has also helped the NCP win a bypoll from the seat. Patole defeated NCP’s stalwart Praful Patel in the 2014 elections.
Vidarbha elections are also known for caste politics.
The outcome of many seats in the region will be decided by how Kunbi-Maratha, Teli and other communities vote. The minority community, too, can influence the outcome of the elections in some constituencies.