MUMBAI: The influential sugar barons in Western Maharashtra are set to play an important role in deciding the outcome of the Assembly polls in this most prosperous region of the state.
Western Maharashtra, which comprises Pune, Satara, Sangli, Solapur and Kolhapur districts, has 58 Assembly seats. It accounts for around 20 per cent of the state’s total 288 seats.
As sugarcane is the main crop in this widely irrigated region, the local economy largely depends on the sugar mills. The NCP has so far managed to wrest the region because of its direct control over the sugar industry. This time the BJP is trying to make in-roads in to this part of the state by influencing the sugar barons from the NCP. The BJP has inducted former NCP leaders Baban Pachpute and Atul Bhosale, who control two prominent sugar factories in Ahmednagar and Satara respectively.
The Congress is banking on Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil in Ahmednagar, Harshawardha Patil in Pune and S R Patil in Kolhapur to sail through. They are among the top sugar barons in their respective districts.
Though Pachpute and Vikhe-Patil are from Ahmednagar they also have an influence over the sugarcane farmers in Western Maharashtra. The NCP has a large battery of sugar barons. Party president Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit command maximum influence over Pune’s sugar industry.
The party’s other leaders Jayant Patil from Sangli as well as Babanrao Shinde and Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil from Solapur are considered as heavyweights in this field.
Ajit is confident that the sugar lobby will stand by the NCP. “No one has worked for them as equal as saheb (Pawar) has. We know their issues well,” he said.
BJP leader Eknath Khadse admitted that his party had inducted Pachpute and Bhosale because it did not have a capable candidate for the region. “Pachpute represents Shrigonda. We have not won the seat ever. I asked our workers whether they were capable to win the seat. They replied in negative. So we gave Pachpute a ticket in this constituency,” he said.
Interestingly, Pachpute had switched his loyalty from the NCP to the BJP to save his private sugar mill. The Pawars had refused to bail out his mill caught in financial crisis. The BJP believes that its ally Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS) chief Raju Shetti would play a decisive role in the region. Shetti, who had led an agitation demanding higher prices for sugarcane, is popular in the region for championing the farmers’ issues.
The SSS commands influence in over 18 of these 72 constituencies. A chairman of a sugar factory is more powerful than an MLA at taluka level in this region. He does take a decision on sugarcane prices. It becomes convenient for an MLA to maintain his vote bank if he doubles as a chairman of a sugar factory.
In a cooperative sugar mill, sugarcane producers are the shareholders. But the chairman gets a major say in the politics of at least two talukas which fall within the mill’s hinterland. “If any farmer does not vote for the MLA he orders his mill staff not to purchase the particular farmer’s produce. In that case, the farmer needs to sell his sugarcane to a factory outside his taluka. It costs him more transportation charges which affects his income,” Shetti said.