Raju Shetti has challenged the ruling Congress and the NCP by taking on the cause of sugarcane farmers
Echo of whistles reverberates through the air as the farmer’s leader Raju Shetti goes door-to-door in Kolhapur’s Walwa tehsil. This is Hatkanangale constituency in Maharashtra’s sugarcane belt from where the sitting MP is contesting his second Lok Sabha election. “Vote for Shettinchi shitti (Shetti’s whistle),” his supporters tell villagers. The whistle is the election symbol of Mr. Shetti’s party, the Swabhimani Paksha.
The low-profile house visits are deliberate. Mr. Shetti avoids road shows and rallies in this belt where the economy is controlled by sugar barons through cooperative sugar factories. He has challenged the ruling Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), to which most sugar barons belong, by taking on the cause of the sugarcane farmers. An overwhelming number of Maharashtra’s Chief Minister and Cabinet Ministers have been sugar barons from this belt, a sign of how powerful and entrenched the sugar factory network is.
Mr. Shetti was once part of Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatna. In 2004, he left to form the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana. Over the last decade, he has consistently led campaigns as a result of which sugar co-operatives paid higher prices for farmers. He formed the Swabhimani Paksha and won an Assembly seat as an Independent in 2004. In 2009, he was elected as an MP also as an Independent.
But Mr. Shetti hasn’t let electoral success dim his campaigns. In 2012, he took protest demanding higher cane prices right outside the home of the sugar belt’s most prominent leader, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.
In 2013, he teamed up with anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare and Medha Patkar to highlight how sugar factories in the State were deliberately being declared sick and then sold at low prices to politicians.
This election, he has joined forces with the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition: a move which might cost him the support of Left parties which helped him the last election. Mr Shetti’s party is also contesting the neighbouring Mhada seat, which has been the NCP’s bastion.
In the middle of the campaign, a farmer emerges from one of the houses and gets into the MP’s car. “Saheb, don’t come here again. We’ll take care of these villages,” he promises, before slipping out quietly. Kolhapur district alone has more than 20 co-operative sugar factories. “There’s at least one person working in some or the other sugar factory from every house. The pressure not to be seen with me or support the Swabhimani Paksha is immense. Even then, people are backing me,” Mr. Shetti told The Hindu.
It is this fear of the sugar barons that Shetti is fighting, yet again.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Mr. Shetty defeated NCP’s sitting MP Nivedita Mane by 96,000 votes. In the seat sharing agreement this year, the NCP quickly conceded the seat to the Congress. Mr. Shetty and his supporters see this as a sign of defeat. However, the Congress party has fielded veteran leader Kallappa Awade. The 84-year-old is the president of National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories. He is from the Jain community, the same as Mr. Shetti, so fielding him will divide this vote.
“Ask Mr. Shetti if he has done any work beyond the cane prices. People have also realised that. A politician has to be a lot more than just a protester,” says Mr. Awade dismissively.
For promises on issues beyond sugarcane prices, Mr. Shetti relies heavily on the BJP plank. “Narendra Modi will bring a stable leadership to the country. Price rise will be controlled. You will get the safety you deserve,” Shetty tells a gathering of women self-help groups. “We need more jobs. I don’t know if Mr. Shetti can do anything but at least he tries to do things for us. Other politicians only come during the elections,” a young woman told The Hindu.