NAGPUR: Shankar Naitam’s two-acre plantation in Pandharkawda of Yavatmal district once used to bloom with pomegranate crop. This year, the strips are parched. Three years of consecutive drought has left him completely high and dry with no one to turn to and his angry stare answers the queries on benefits received by him from the host of government schemes to combat farm distress in Vidarbha.
Vidarbha in Maharashtra has been the heart of distressed farmers’ suicides and the situation is far from any comfort to those alive. Politicians, too, shy away from the questions thrown to them by their constituents. There are no easy answers.
Yet, the common voter in rural Vidarbha, who has been facing the wrath of nature and the associated farm distress, is experiencing heavy caste and communal pulls this time. As 7 of the 10 constituencies, won by the BJP-Shiv Sena combine in 2014, go to vote in the first phase on April 11, this confused rural voter is a major concern to the saffron alliance.
“It is not just the land that has gone dry. Our hopes, too, have dried up,” said Naitam, 43. There are others like Dattu Tajne of Nanduri village in Bhadravati taluka of Chandrapur district who proudly boasts of the benefits of government schemes he has received. The 55-year-old farmer has 6 acres of land. Proximity to a river — though almost dry now — has ensured moisture security to his farm, while dairy business started with Mudra loan has added to his financial security.
“I bought two cows with Rs1 lakh of Mudra loan and now I sell 10 litres of milk every day at Rs 50 per litre,” he said.
However, if one were to deduce that Naitam would vote for the Congress and Tajne would certainly vote for the BJP, it might be a mistake. Kunbi, Banjara, Mali, Teli, Muslims and Dalits are the communities whose votes could be a decisive factor in all rural constituencies of Vidarbha.
Of these, Teli, Mali, migrants from Hindi belt and OBCs, are by and large with the BJP-Sena combine, while the Kunbi, Muslim, Banjara and Dalit communities are with the Congress. Naitam belongs to OBC community, while Tajne is a Kunbi and both confirmed their preference for community opinion when it comes to voting in the Lok Sabha.
Wardha, Ramtek (SC), Nagpur, Bhandara-Gondiya, Gadchiroli-Chimur (ST), Chandrapur and Yavatmal-Washim are the seven constituencies of Vidarbha that would go to poll on April 11-among which, Nagpur is the only urban constituency.
In Wardha, BJP’s sitting MP Ramdas Tadas and state president of Teli community is trying his luck again. He sits comfortably against Congress’ Charulata Tokas, for Teli votes have a dominant say. PM Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi both addressed public rallies in Wardha — in a span of a week. Though Gandhi raised a few vital issues, Modi had the crowd.
The constituency has three Congress MLAs, but the BJP had polled over 55% of votes in 2014 Lok Sabha polls as against only around 31% for the Congress. Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA and Mayawati’s BSP have a major say in the region and come as a worry for the Congress.
In Chandrapur, Union minister Hansraj Ahir is being challenged by former Shiv Sena MLA and now Congress candidate Suresh aka Bala Dhanorkar. Dhanorkar is a Kunbi and Ahir is an OBC. The constituency has over 4 lakh Kunbi votes, points out Sanjay Tiwari, a young Congress supporter who works in the state-owned coal mines.
However, BJP office-bearer Narendra Jivtode, a Kunbi himself, says and there are many like him who would want to elect Ahir for a consecutive fifth term. Akhtar Siddiqi, a young coal trader from the city blames Modi government for its divisive policies as well as decisions like demonetisation, which, he said, are haunt small traders like him even today.
Ahir had polled 45% votes in 2014 against Congress’ 26%. Senior PWP leader Wamanrao Chatap had polled around 18% votes back then which the Congress is trying to pull. However, again, the caste-community equations are likely to play a major role. The fact that state finance, planning and forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar hails from Chandrapur, is an added advantage for Ahir.
In neighbouring Gadchiroli-Chimur (ST) constituency, issues of control over Maoist activities is the major issue. “Maoist activities are limited only to a small part of three talukas in the district”, says Ahir, who, as Union minister of state for home, had taken keen interest in strengthening the Anti Naxalite Operation (ANO) unit of Gadchiroli police.
Here BJP’s Ashok Nete (BJP) is pitched against Dr Namdeo Usendi of the Congress. Though Usendi is a senior tribal leader, Nete has obvious advantage of being part of the ruling party in the district which sees a strong presence of security forced due to the Maoist influence.
Another interesting contest from the region is in Yavatmal-Washim, where former state Congress chief Manikrao Thakre has entered the race against four-time MP Bhawna Gawli. In this seat, Vaishali Yede, wife of a farmer who committed suicide, is contesting under the banner of Prahar Party.
This is also the district that suffered the worst pink bull-worm attack on cotton crop last year.
“Modi had promised us that our cotton would go directly to mills from our farm. But, the promise remains unfulfilled,” said Shankar Nagpure, a cotton farmer in the district.
That Shiv Sena MLAs are not whole-heartedly backing the party candidate in Yavatmal-Washim and BJP’s Parshuram Ade has entered the fray as a rebel, are additional concerns for Gavli.