A dried-up portion of Nilona Damp, 150km from Nagpur, amid the water crisis in the hot summer in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, in May last year. Photo: Times of India / Aniruddhasingh Dinore

As the political battle heats up in India’s western state of Maharashtra, farmers of the drought-prone region Vidarbha may seem disconnected from the electoral scene.

“The life of a Vidarbha farmer is dependent on rain gods, not the politicians,” explains Maruti Uke, a farmer from Wardha district.

While two-thirds of the population of perennially dry Vidarbha depends on agriculture, “less than 10% of farmland is irrigated here,” says Vijay Jawandiya, a farm activist from Nagpur. “Most dams have dried up.”

Blessed with rich mineral deposits and dense forests but suffering from huge developmental backlog, Vidarbha’s 10 parliamentary constituencies will vote in the first two phases, on April 11 and 18.

The history

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) got complete control over this region in the last general election, winning all 10 seats. But then BJP lost one seat (Bhandara-Gondiya) to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP, which defected from Congress in 1999) in a by-election necessitated after its MP Nana Patole quit and switched to Congress.

The 2014 wipeout of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the region was attributed to the Modi ‘wave’ and the center’s prolonged neglect of Vidarbha. In 2009 elections, the NDA and UPA bagged five seats each. In 2004, the NDA had won nine seats in Vidarbha.

The region will decide the future of several political heavyweights: the union transport minister, Nitin Gadkari (Nagpur); Hansraj Ahir, minister of state for home (Chandrapur); former state Congress president Manikrao Thakre (Yavatmal-Washim); and the Congress head for Kisan Morcha, Nana Patole, who quit BJP three years ago and is now contesting against Gadkari.

Key factors

Agricultural distress, farmer suicides, water scarcity and developmental backlog will be the key factors impacting the poll outcomes of Vidarbha constituencies. In the tribal-dominated Gadchiroli-Chimur seat, mining projects and rising Naxalite – Maoist guerrilla – activities could also be deciding factors.

Over 7,700 farmers have committed suicide in six years due to crop failure and mounting debt in Vidarbha.

Last year, after a BJP-led state government had come to power, it waived loan repayment for farmers with small landholdings and set up a task force under the leadership of farm activist Kishore Tewari to look into agricultural distress.

But, really, nothing has changed for the rural economy in the last five years, the activist Jawandhia complained. “The Modi government’s claims that farmers are getting 50% profit over input cost is just eyewash. They are getting even less than the minimum support price.”

“Vidarbha’s problems are quite complex,” the Shiv Sena spokesperson, Neelam Gorhe, acknowledged. “We sought to address them one by one but nature negated those efforts to some extent.”

Despite the glaring issues in the region, Vidarbha elections are focused on caste politics, according to observers. All parties have fielded candidates solely on the basis of caste mathematics.

BJP-Sena claims

The BJP-Shiv Sena government claims to have improved road-rail-air connectivity and to have attracted investments for several Nagpur-centered projects such as Maharashtra Metro Rail Corporation, the Multimodal International Cargo Hub and Airport, and campuses of the Indian Institute of Management and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

The governing alliance also banks upon farm loan waivers and pledges to take action on the National Commission on Farmers’ Swaminathan recommendations on dealing with farmer suicides, which were issued well over a decade ago.

Maharashtra’s finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar blamed Congress, saying, “Farmer suicides are a result of bad policies of the previous Congress-NCP government. Most dams remained incomplete for decades due to pending claims of landowners. We are completing those irrigation projects now.”

For example,  the nearly completed Gosikhurd dam helps “turn the dry land into irrigated,” Mungantiwar said. But he acknowledged it would take at least six or seven years for farms to receive full advantage from the projects.

After the BJP executive committee passed a resolution in 1987 favoring the creation of smaller states including Vidarbha, several BJP leaders publicly supported the idea. However, Shiv Sena, BJP’s ally in the center and the state, opposes division, urging respect for the memory of 105 people who died in agitation for an undivided Maharashtra in the late 1950s.

Farmers said BJP had promised a separate state of Vidarbha in the run-up to the 2014 Assembly polls but dropped the issue after coming to power because the party needed Shiv Sena’s support to run the government. Mungantiwar denied the claims, saying the party never promised a separate Vidarbha in previous elections.

Surprises possible

Madhav Bhandari, BJP’s spokesperson boasts, “We will score a perfect 10 this time also.” However, other observers believe that NDA won’t achieve a clean sweep in Vidarbha this time due to pre-poll political migrations, internal discontent and anti-incumbency feeling against some multi-term members of parliament.

“The most critical contests are slated in Nagpur, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Buldhana and Bhandara-Gondiya where the opposition has fair chance to win this time,” said Vivek Deshpande, a political analyst based in Nagpur, pointing out anti-incumbency and internal tussles as the major reasons.

Retaining the seats of Nagpur and Chandrapur is symbolically important for the BJP. Its ideological flank, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is headquartered in Nagpur, while Chandrapur is home of Mungantiwar and of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

But surprises cannot be ruled out. Congress followers include Muslims, Dalits (who were untouchables in the Hindu caste system) and Kunbis (“other backward class” farmers) –  groups that “are in majority at many seats,” Deshpande said.

“The regional alliance of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi led by Dr BR Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar could play a checkmate at a few seats in Vidarbha, though it may not be able to win any seat.”

This is the second of a three-part series.

Tomorrow: Affirmative action roils Central Northwest

See also: Alliance hopes to breach BJP fort in Mumbai

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