For Nagpur residents, Vidarbha farmers and supporters of separate statehood, the winter session of the Maharashtra state assembly is once-a-year chance and an annual routine to have agitations, demonstrations, disruptions to highlight disturbing, chronic problems of the region, known for the longest time for farmers’ suicides. But this time it has been slightly different. This time the assembly and the agitations have a background of a national, senior BJP leader agitating against the present state government for its failure in handling the agrarian crisis.
Before the dust of Yashwant Sinha’s arrest and subsequent refusal to call off the agitation to protest the government’s apathy towards farmers, could settle, BJP MP Nana Patole resigned from the party and the post, saying the government had failed its people. He shared stage with Rahul Gandhi for Gujarat election campaign, sending indicators of joining the grand old party with the freshly-elected President. As if that wasn’t enough, another BJP MLA Ashish Deshmukh wrote a seven-page letter to the chief minister on 6th December (to mark the occasion of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary) making an elaborate demand for separate state of Vidarbha, reminding him of his promise to the people of his constituency. Not to forget Shiv Sena that has been relentless in criticizing the government, of which it is a part, over farmers’ suicides and poor implementation of the much-publicised loan waiver.
With the preceding rebel act by Yashwant Sinha and an on-going Gujarat election, does this disruptive assembly session at Nagpur, also headquarters of the RSS, points to a troubled time within Modi-Shah’s BJP, in Maharashtra and outside of it?
“These are just voices of disgruntlement and not dissent. They were expecting something else and because those demands have not been met, they are making noise, be it Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie or Nana Patole. There is no problem in the party,” says senior leader Madhav Bhandari. “And the opposition won’t allow any parliamentary or assembly session to run smoothly anyway, so we can’t look at assembly disruptions as a problem for the government.”
This disclaimer notwithstanding, political experts say a lot has changed since BJP formed the government three years ago in Maharashtra, when the country was truly riding the Modi wave. Even as assembly session is halted, the farmers are wondering how to cope with the losses due to a bug on cotton that has reduced output by more than 50% in many cases. Just two months ago more than 20 farmers died of pesticide poisoning while spraying their fields in Yawatmal district.
“It is not as if the chief minister is not aware of the problems in Vidarbha. However, the state government is unable to do anything about the agrarian crisis or employment opportunities. Instead of addressing these issues, a road is being built from Nagpur to Mumbai, a metro network is getting made. Are these going to provide jobs? There are too many cooks and the dishes they serve are not meant for the poor,” says Shreehari Aney, former state Advocate General who has been demanding a separate state of Vidarbha. He says people are feeling cheated. “People feel if the very minimum of the basic needs of Vidarbha can not be met by Maharashtra, then give us our separate state and we will manage. Now, despite that promise at the time of elections, there is no movement on that front either. We know it is not easy to create a state, but if some concrete steps had been taken, people would have accepted that too. I look at the current developments on the political front as one more nail in the coffin.”
Despite being from Nagpur, CM Fadnavis comes across as someone who has tried to take projects to Nagpur but has not managed to create jobs or provide for the farmers. Vidarbha comprising of districts such as Yawatmal, Wardha, Bhandara has a majority of its population depending on agriculture, with little or no irrigation. Any natural calamity such as unseasonal rains or insufficient rains can destroy the farmers, whose land holdings may appear to be higher than those in western Maharashtra, growing lucrative sugarcane and fruits and vegetables, but due to poor irrigation and lower MSPs have been perennially debt-ridden.
Former finance minister Yashwant Sinha’s participation in the protest at Akola (and arrest) brought these issues to national spotlight. He says that the government has not delivered its promises of doubling farmers’ income, increasing MSP of produce and farmers continue to be “compelled to commit suicides.” “It is the immediate issues that led to what happened in Akola, issues like buying farmers produce at support prices, like attending to damaged cotton crop due to ball worm and local problems like electricity disconnection. But there are long term issues, which need to be tackled on a priority basis so that entire economics of agriculture improves. This is causing great deal of rural distress. The government had made some promised such as doubling of farmers’ income; the deadline has been shifted to 2022... so if farming remains where it was in 2014, then this government has some problems…”
Soon Patole followed with his resignation and an elaborate letter listing out reasons. “I have been trying to get things done for people but time and again I felt that this government was not doing anything for those who are suffering. I felt I could no longer be a part of this sin and so I resigned. It is not just about how they treated me,” says Nana Patole, adding that there are more like him within the party. Several local media reports indicate that he has been disillusioned since he was not allowed to speak at meeting where PM Modi asked him to stop talking while he was elaborating on problems of the region.
Although he has a Congress background and also has shared space with Rahul Gandhi at a Gujarat rally, Patole says he hasn’t made up his mind. “I will spend time with people and work on issues for couple of months. I will decide depending on what the people want.” Apart from what people want, Patole will also have to consider a shift in equation with his rival NCP’s senior leader Praful Patel, if he were to join the Congress and if Congress were to join hands with NCP for 2019 elections.
The disillusionment – with Modi-Shah duo – is reported from different people at different times, be it the old guard of the BJP or the new entrants, who joined to make the most of anti-Congress atmosphere before 2014. For example, MP Raju Shetti, from the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, quit the government in August for similar reasons.
Question is whether this becomes a force to reckon with. “Yashwant Sinha is trying to carve out a position for himself for future,” says former CM Prithviraj Chavan. “Discontentment is showing within the party and among the people. They have not been able to handle problems of rural areas or create jobs. This will reflect in Gujarat as well.”
Even as neighbouring Gujarat witnesses one of the most aggressive, vitriolic and hard-fought assembly elections, political analysts say events of Maharashtra may have an impact, however small. And agrarian crisis and unemployment are likely to become crucial factors. “The biggest failure of this government is addressing agrarian crisis. Sinha and Patole are talking about this very important issue. Soon more people will join them. Though it sounds like a big word now, but this is going to be their nemesis. They have no rural face with their campaigns like digital India, Make in India. At least in Gujarat they have Modi and Shah campaigning but here there is no one like that. Leaders who are speaking about these issues have sensed rural disconnect,” says Girish Kuber, Editor Loksatta.
Even if leaders such as Sinha and Patole are carving a space for themselves and perhaps eyeing an early-bird mileage out of a possible rural revolt against the BJP, if it helps in preventing farmers’ suicides and forced migration and acute collective depression, even a little bit, the stunts or sincere efforts, would be worth it.