The BJP will not change, they will only talk 370: Farmers’ leader Raju Shetti

Courtesy Raju Shetti
27 October, 2019

On 21 October this year, the state of Maharashtra voted to elect its fourteenth legislative assembly. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena alliance was voted back to power. However, their respective tally for these elections was lower than the previous assembly—the BJP won 105 seats, as opposed to 122 seats in 2014, while the Shiv Sena clocked 56 seats, compared to the previous number of 63.The BJP’s vote share dropped to 25.75 percent from the 2014 figure of 31.15 percent, while the Shiv Sena bagged 16.41 percent votes this year compared to 19.8 percent in the previous election. The BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis served as the state’s chief minister from 2014 till 2019, and his tenure witnessed successive droughts, and large-scale farmers’ unrest.

Raju Shetti is a farmers’ rights activist and a politician from Kolhapur in Maharashtra. In 2002, he formed the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, a farmers’ organisation. Two years later, he won the Shirol assembly seat as an independent candidate. He contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and 2014, and won from Hatkanangle as a candidate of the Swabhimani Paksha, the political arm of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana. He aligned with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2014, but parted ways in 2017. In the 2019 assembly elections, his party contested four seats, and won the Morshi seat in Vidarbha. In an interview with Tushar Dhara, a reporting fellow with The Caravan, Shetti said that agrarian distress was the reason for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance’s reduced tally.

Tushar Dhara: What are the reasons for the reduction of seats won by the BJP and Shiv Sena alliance in the recently concluded state elections?
Raju Shetti: Maharashtra has been reeling from agrarian distress for many years. On the one hand, there is drought. The Marathwada and western Vidarbha regions have been experiencing drought for the past two years, which the Fadnavis government ignored. The BJP’s seats have reduced in Vidarbha. Conversely, there were floods in western Maharashtra, which was handled indifferently by the government. Another issue is crop insurance. Farmers did not benefit from the prime minister’s crop-insurance scheme, the insurance companies did. [The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, launched in 2016, provides uniform premiums for specific categories of farm produce.] Despite repeated complaints from farmers, the government ignored the problem. The crop-insurance scheme turned into a corporate-benefits scheme. The third reason is that cotton farmers who were affected by the pink-worm pest did not get relief. The fourth issue is minimum support prices for crops like chana, arhar and soya bean. Farmers had difficulty selling their crop to the government, and payments were delayed by six months. Farmers were also angry with the government’s farm-loan waivers. There was so much publicity by the government and little benefit that accrued to farmers.

Even the opposition did not raise these issues during the election campaign. But there was a lot of anger among farmers. These people [the BJP and the Shiv Sena] just make grand speeches. People saw through that. The elections are happening in Maharashtra and the issues being raised are Article 370. [On 5 August, the BJP-led government at the centre read down Article 370 and revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.]

TD: So the BJP’s campaign, which was centred around Article 370 and Kashmir, failed?
RS: It clicked during the Lok Sabha polls, but failed in the Vidhan Sabha elections.

TD: A number of leaders from the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress defected to the BJP and Shiv Sena. Do you think that had a bearing on how people voted?
RS: People did not like that. Out of the defectors, twenty lost the polls: nine from the BJP and eleven from the Shiv Sena. [According to media reports, the Shiv Sena fielded nine defectors, out of which only two won their constituencies, while the BJP gave a ticket to 13 defectors, ten of whom won their assembly seats.]

TD: The BJP dislodged the Congress and the NCP from western Maharashtra’s sugar cooperatives. Why did this not pay electoral dividends?
RS: The government used the threat of income-tax raids and the enforcement directorate to pressurise the sugar barons to join the BJP, but there was anger among sugarcane farmers over the methods used by the BJP. In my district, Kolhapur, of the ten assembly seats, the Shiv Sena won six and the BJP won two in 2014. This time, the combine won only one seat. In Sangli, the BJP lost two of its four seats.

TD: In 2014, you were aligned with the National Democratic Alliance, and parted ways with them a few years later. Why did you leave?
RS: I opposed the changes that the Modi government made to the land acquisition act that was introduced by Jairam Ramesh. [In 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government introduced the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. Jairam Ramesh was the union minister for rural development at the time and one of the key architects of the bill.] The Congress bill was pro-farmer and I did not like the amendments that the BJP government made to it, and I opposed it vigorously. They also went back on their promise to implement the Swaminathan committee recommendations; they even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying why it could not be done. [In 2004, the UPA government constituted a National Commission on Farmers, under the chairmanship of the geneticist and administrator MS Swaminathan, which focussed on the rising number of farmer suicides in India.]

Then there was the Mandsaur incident, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government fired on farmers [On 6 June 2017, five farmers were killed after the police opened fire during a protest against rising debt and crop prices, in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district. The BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan was the chief minister of the state at the time]. On a national farm-loan waiver, the BJP government at the centre kept saying that state governments have to do it, but agricultural policies relating to crop prices are made by the union government. If farmers are not getting remunerative prices because of your policies, whose responsibility is it? I wanted the central government to take responsibility. Manmohan Singh did a farm-loan waiver in 2008 and Modi should have done something similar. A lot of farmers’ organisations got together and raised the issue of farm-loan waivers, but they [the BJP government at the centre] did not take it seriously. After that, I realised that they are anti-farmer, and it is not right to work with them.

TD: What can we expect in the next five years from a BJP government in Maharashtra? Do you think there will be genuine engagement with agrarian issues or more muscular nationalism?
RS: Yeh log sudharenge nahi. [These people will not change.] They will only talk about 370, Kashmir, nationalism, Ram temple and slowly the people will get alienated from them.

TD: Unemployment is also high while the industrial sector in Maharashtra has suffered. Did unemployment hurt the BJP’s prospects in the elections?
RS: It did not at this point, but it will in the future. The youth are solidly behind the BJP. Even today, their brains are full of 370 and Kashmir.

TD: What will be your approach to the BJP government in the next five years?
RS: The BJP today, is behaving in the same way that Indira Gandhi did during the Emergency. We are going to start a movement against this.

This interview has been edited and condensed.