Cover Story: General Election 2019

Maharashtra: Swing and Sway

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The paradox of alliances and other unknowns in Maharashtra

RAJU SHETTI APPEARS in the living room, his eyes bulging with sleep. He stretches himself out on a sofa with a tired grimace. Keeping both his hands to himself, his face is bereft of a smile or acknowledgement of visitors. In order to make conversation, one has to walk to him, offer both hands and make an introduction.

The house—all of two storeys located on a dirt road off the highway in Pune—does not belong to him. But it is swarming with his men: large and hardy, the type that can pass off as policemen in mufti or the local muscle; and slighter men with crafty Machiavellian faces. There are also a few genteel, middle-class figures. One of them, a professorial man in his fifties appears every few minutes to say, “[Shetti] is a great man. He is not very articulate. But you must remember he is a great man.”

Outside, the gravel scrunches frequently. More cars and more men are arriving every few minutes.

“Where were we?” Shetti asks. I remind him. And he continues.

Shetti, Maharashtra’s most well-known farmer leader, has been tasked with a fairly important role in the coming Lok Sabha elections. His political party, Swabhimani Paksha, may be contesting only two seats but the Congress-National Congress Party (NCP) alliance is banking on him to mobilise the agrarian discontent and give them the state.

Shetti is strongest in western Maharashtra, a region of around 12 Lok Sabha seats, especially amongst those employed in the dairy and sugarcane industry. In the last Lok Sabha election, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine did extraordinarily well here. Congress, which has a long history of powerful sugar barons winning them the region, drew a blank for the first time. NCP fared only slightly better. Shetti was in an alliance with the BJP and Sena then, but having broken off from them (in 2017, calling the BJP Centre an anti-farmer Government), he is now taking his chances with the Congress and NCP.

“Twenty seats, may be 21. That’s it, maximum,” Shetti says referring to the number of seats the BJP-Sena alliance, he thinks, will get in the state. “They won’t win more. No chance. The farmers—and if I know something it is farmers—they are too unhappy.” Shetti gives a list of reasons, from the drought in Vidarbha and its nearby regions and the reported instances of farmer suicides, to the crisis in the sugar industry with factories and co-operatives struggling to pay sugarcane farmers. “Cane farmers aren’t being paid for more than three months, and when they get the money it is much lesser than the FRP rates [the Fair and Remunerative Price, decided upon by the Central Government, which the mills must pay farmers for their cane],” he says. This is true. There is a crisis currently in the sugar industry. There has been a glut in production for the last few years and prices are falling. But since the government mandates what mills must pay to purchase sugarcane, mill owners are finding themselves unable to raise the amount. The current selling price of sugar is not enough to recover the cost of production.

Farmers have organised protests in the last few months. Shetti’s party has led several of them. There were incidents of arson earlier this year when sugarcane farmers attacked several mills. But whether this ire will crystallise against the current government or the NCP and Congress, whose leaders still control many of the mills and sugar co-operatives, cannot be easily ascertained.

A factor that has queered what should’ve been a straight contest between the BJP-Sena and the Congress-NCP is the emergence of Prakash Ambedkar, whose Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi is eyeing Dalit votes that would’ve otherwise gone to the Congress

A sudden commotion ensues in the room. A man runs out from a bathroom carrying a phone reverentially in both hands as if it is prasad from a temple. He whispers the name that wipes out any remaining sleep from Shetti’s face—“Sharad Pawar”. Shetti jumps there, his entire body, standing atop toes, keeling forward to not miss a word, while a bevy of men form a ring around him lest anyone should overhear.

Maharashtra, which goes to polls in four phases from April 11th, is going to be a crucial state if the BJP and its allies expect to return to power. The BJP-Sena alliance came close to sweeping all 48 seats in the last election. The two parties cumulatively won 41 seats, with Shetti, an ally then, winning another seat. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of the BJP-Sena combine will admit it won’t be as easy this time. A vast number of issues have cropped up in the last few years, from agrarian discontentment to large protests conducted by the Marathas and Dalits.

But the Congress and the NCP have struggled to capitalise on these issues. The Congress, in particular, is riven with factionalism and infighting. On March 23rd, Ashok Chavan, the state chief of the Congress party, appeared at a press conference in Mumbai, to announce the launch of what he called the United Progressive Grand Alliance, an alliance of the Congress, NCP and some 57 other groups. He held hands with members of this group to declare: “To face these divisive forces [the BJP], save the Constitution and give justice to the people, we have come together.” By evening, a leaked audio tape was doing the rounds, where he is heard expressing his displeasure and considering resigning from his post.

In the last few weeks, several leaders across parties have shifted allegiances. But even among these vacillating political weathercocks, the most embarrassing instance of a turncoat belongs to the Congress. Sujay Vikhe-Patil, the son of one of the party’s top leaders and also the Leader of the Opposition in the state, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, joined the BJP a few weeks ago.

Shetti himself was striking a hard bargain with the Congress and NCP, threatening to contest against them, if his party was not granted three seats. He eventually settled for two, Hatkanangle, from where he has won the last two parliamentary elections, and Sangli. “[The Congress and NCP] have promised to make it up to me by granting me more seats in the state elections later,” he says. A few days after my meeting with him, Shetti was in the news for being unhappy about the choice of one seat—Sangli.

Surendra Jondhale, the Pune-based political commentator and professor of political science at University of Mumbai, points out that the Congress and the NCP have been ineffective as the Opposition. Several opportunities have presented themselves—from mammoth protest marches by caste groups like the Marathas to the agrarian distress—but one by one, Jondhale says, the two parties have virtually blown out each flame. “For all practical purposes, the Sena has been playing the role of the main Opposition in the last five years,” he says.

That could arguably be one of the biggest hurdles before the BJP and Sena in this election. How do you work together, or rather how do you convince people you can work together? “After all this hostility, how do you persuade people to vote for them together now?” Jondhale goes on.

There is already evidence of this hostility among party workers. While the top leadership tier in the two parties appear to have resolved their differences, in several constituencies at the local level leaders have declared they will not support their counterparts even though there is an alliance in order.

“Twenty seats, may be twenty one. That's it. The BJP-Sena alliance won't win more. The farmers are too unhappy with them,” says Raju Shetti, president of Swabhimani Paksha

IT’S SUNDAY NOW. The road from Mumbai to Kolhapur cuts through one of the driest and hottest regions of the state. For vast stretches, trees rise without leaf and bushes stand in thickets of bramble. People walk here under the shade of umbrellas or with covered faces.

We reach Kolhapur by evening. The BJP and Sena have organised their first joint-rally for the elections here. And the roads are beginning to groan under its weight. There are vehicles here filled with, it appears, entire villages of people. Later reports would say around 100,000 people showed up for the rally.

After a point, driving becomes impossible. Vehicles are abandoned and people begin to walk. You can’t see ahead because of the sheer number of people, but everyone walks drawn to the sound of an even larger gathering at some distance. Everyone on the road is wearing a shade of saffron, either the Sena’s or BJP’s flag colours, across their necks.The stage atop the ground is something like a set from a south Indian film. It is large and decorated with flowers. The ground below is divided into two sections, a smaller part for VIPs and the media, and a larger section for commoners. Separating the two is a small fence of bamboo poles. Every few minutes a fight breaks out because someone from the VIP section has refused to pass on an unoccupied chair to the people behind. Policemen are soon stationed. But an hour into the programme, many onlookers have climbed over the fence. There is a special reserved area for women in the VIP section. And many police personnel now move here, as if in retreat, to prepare for their last stand protecting the women. The women do not appear to need help though. Dressed in expensive saris and ornaments, heads partly covered in veils, with people waiting on them, they watch the proceedings, unimpressed and with scorn.

Above on stage, another performance is going on. Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray take turns to break coconuts. They smile and joke like schoolchildren in a playground, and lean their ears to the others’ mouth as if a secret joke is being shared. All of this is captured and conveyed to us on large TVs set up across the ground.

The speeches go on expected lines. There is Pulwama, Balakot and terrorism, nationalism, corruption, Narendra Modi, and frequent digs at the Opposition.

The night wears on. And before long, the show has ended.

A factor that has queered what should have otherwise been a straight contest between the BJP-Sena and Congress-NCP alliance is the emergence of Prakash Ambedkar, whose Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a tie-up between his party, the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), and the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen—which is contesting all the 48 seats in the state.

According to most observers, the Congress and NCP missed a trick in not trying hard enough to get Ambedkar within their fold. Dalits make up about 13 per cent of Maharashtra’s electorate. In the past, Dalit political parties have been riven by factional differences, and the Dalit vote, like in several other states, has become so divided that it has often lost its weight. If Dalit electoral favour can be consolidated, it could tilt the ballot balance.

“Some right-wing groups have been trying to change the history of this place. Vadhu has become tense and bitter. Every time a Dalit leader visits Sambhaji’s memorial, the whole place is cleaned with cow urine”, says Rajendra Gaikwad, descendant of Govind Gopal, who is believed to have cremated Shivaji’s son Sambhaji

According to Jondhale, the presence of Ambedkar’s candidates will mean a large number of Dalit votes, which would have otherwise gone to the Congress, will now go to him. “What Ambedkar is doing is for the long-term. He wants Dalit votes that go to the Congress and some of the OBC votes that go to the BJP to now come to him,” he says.

The attack on Dalits in Bhima Koregaon nearly two years ago, coupled with the growing domination of the political space by right-wing forces seem to have made several Dalit groups anxious about being pushed into a corner. There has been a resurgence within Dalit groups, as several commentators point out, where Dalit history and symbols like Bhima Koregaon are being reclaimed.

WE ARE SEATED in a car now, driving to the west of Pune, beyond Bhima Koregaon, to the village of Rajendra Gaikwad’s birth, Vadhu. I’m here to learn from Gaikwad about what Bhima Koregaon and an attack on Dalits at the spot nearly two years ago have come to mean to the Dalit community. “We’ve got a lot of time,” Gaikwad consults his watch and looks out of the window of the car as though he can see the 30-odd kilometers to Vadhu. Outside, the day is turning to dusk.

Gaikwad is a successful entrepreneur based in Pune, with companies involved in waste management and pest control. He is a genial man, stoutly-built, who walks with hurried steps as though he was always running late for some appointment. He wasn’t always so affluent. “As a child I remember I didn’t even have chappals at one point,” he says. Born to poor farmers in Vadhu, he moved to Pune along with his parents after a famine in the village. He started small, he says, doing whatever odd-jobs he could get in the city, before eventually starting his own company.

There is also another reason why Gaikwad is well-known in Vadhu and among Dalit groups in Pune. He is the descendant of Govind Gopal Gaikwad, who is believed to have defied the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the late 1600s and cremated Sambhaji (the son of the king, Shivaji).

As the story goes—Gaikwad describes it with a relish— Govind Gopal was a part of Sambhaji’s army. In 1689, when Sambhaji was murdered and his body cut up into several pieces and thrown into the Bhima river, the Mughal court had ordered that no one was to conduct the last rites of the body. Govind Gopal is believed to have gathered the body parts that had washed up at Vadhu, sewn what he could, and cremated the body.

There are two memorials in Vadhu, one of Sambhaji, since he was cremated here, and another for the man who cremated him, Govind Gopal. Their memorials lie adjacent to one another separated by a town square, both of them serving as a reminder of the shared history between the Marathas and Dalits. Every year, when Dalits gather in Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the battle of 1818 in which members of the Bombay Native Infantry, many of them Mahars, defeated the Brahmin Peshwas, several of them also travel to Vadhu, to pay their respects to the memorial of Govind Gopal.

As a child, Gaikwad remembers encountering casteism in his village. He describes attending a wedding and being made to sit at a corner, away from the rest. “But the history of Govind Gopal, the fact that he had cremated Sambhaji, these were never contested even in my village,” he says. When Sambhaji’s memorial was first established at Vadhu a few decades ago, a board was also put up mentioning this fact.

In recent years, however, some right-wing groups have been disputing this history. They claim Sambhaji’s funeral was conducted by a Maratha, and not Govind Gopal. A new board with this changed version has now replaced the older one at the Sambhaji memorial. The area itself has become tense and bitter. Every time Dalit leaders such as Ramdas Athawale visit the Sambhaji memorial, Gaikwad says, the entire place is cleaned with cow urine.

ON DECEMBER 29TH, 2017, three days before the 200th anniversary of the battle at Bhima-Koregaon, since the board at the Sambhaji memorial had been changed, Gaikwad and his relatives put up another board, this one at Govind Gopal’s memorial, claiming that it was Govind Gopal who had done the cremations. By nightfall, a group of over 500 people had descended on the memorial. A majority of them, Gaikwad says, were from the village. They pulled out the new board and vandalised the memorial.

We pull up at the main square in Vadhu. The night has almost fallen now. To our right we find the Sambhaji memorial. As one can expect, considering the outsized role Shivaji plays in Marathi history, the memorial to his son is opulent. There are lights, seating arrangements, and an enclosure built in the shape of an ancient fort.

To our left is an empty ground. There is a police outpost here, two police vans and several armed policemen. The lights die here constantly. It is a strange sight to behold, a large contingent of policemen as though protecting something we can barely see. “There, there,” Gaikwad points at a stone slab with a blue canopy above it. “That’s the [Govind Gopal] samadhi.” It is the most inconspicuous memorial I have ever seen. That someone would try to pull it down and rip out a board here, whatever the perceived provocation, is beyond me.

Most of the Dalits in the village reside adjacent to the memorial. There are about 15 such families here, including relatives of Gaikwad. Since many of the people from these families testified against and had locals who attacked the site arrested, many of them have been granted round-the-clock police protection.

Gaikwad has two nephews at the village. One of them claims his hotel was burnt in the Bhima-Koregaon violence. Another runs a shop, which has more or less been shunned by the villagers.

In the aftermath of the Bhima-Koregaon riots and the renewed interest in the Govind Gopal memorial, there has been talk of rebuilding a more striking monument. More Dalits have even begun visiting this site. On January 1st, Gaikwad claims over 500,000 people showed up at the Govind Gopal memorial to pay their respects. But for now, the Gaikwads say all plans of rebuilding the memorial have been halted. Even their appeals for their board to be re-fixed have been denied. “It’s like a daily insult, to see it this way,” Pandurang Gaikwad says. “But what can we do?” All they are permitted to do, as of now, is to place a garland of flowers at the memorial.

“Many Dalits are going to vote for Ambedkar,” Gaikwad says. “The way he has spoken to us, how he led people after Bhima Koregaon [attacks]. How do I explain it?”

On our way back to Pune, Gaikwad makes the driver stop at an unspecified venue. It is entirely dark now. From a distance I can see a giant structure shaped like a lighthouse rising into the night sky. We have reached, I realise, the stone pillar built by the British to commemorate the Bhima Koregaon battle of 1821.

We are long past the permitted time to enter the venue. But the gates are open and we walk in. After a while, the policemen stationed at the area show up. But Gaikwad refuses to listen to them. He walks, shining the light of his mobile on the names of the Mahars at the pillar.

Walking back to the car, his voice is choked. And, I realise, his eyes have filled silently.

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