Siddhesh Inamdar

KOLHAPUR: Lok Sabha member Raju Shetti’s office in Jaysingpur town is abuzz with excitement. Mr. Shetti’s Swabhimani Paksha has pitted a “heavyweight candidate” against Maharashtra Home Minister Jayant Patil from the Islampur seat in Sangli district, say party workers.

Over 10,000 people attended a gathering that Mr. Shetti addressed after Vaibhav Naikwade, the party’s candidate from Islampur, filed his nomination.

Dislodging the Home Minister is a very real prospect for the party’s workers. The ambition may sound audacious against the background that the party contested and won just one seat in the recent Lok Sabha elections,that of Mr. Shetti himself. However, his victory created history of sorts.

Mr. Shetti, who won the Shirol Assembly seat in 2004 as an independent with just 35 per cent votes, won spectacularly in the general elections from the Hatkanangle seat. He beat Nationalist Congress Party’s Nivedita Mane by a whopping 96,000 votes, winning 4,81,025 votes.

Politics professor at the Pune University Suhas Palshikar calls the man an “exceptional” case. “He does not fit the bill at all,” he says. “He is not a Maratha and not involved with any sugar cooperative. And yet he managed to win from a region considered to be the stronghold of the Maratha sugar kings from the Congress and the NCP.”

As such, the party, a constituent of the Republic Left Democratic Front (RLDF), is riding high on a wave of optimism that Mr. Shetti’s victory brought in its wake. It is going to contest 20-22 seats in the upcoming Assembly elections and is hoping to cause major upsets in a few seats.

On how he was able to pull off a historic win, Mr. Shetti says he channelised people’s discontent against the corruption in the sugar cooperatives in the region. “Photographs of the saakhar-samrat [owners of sugar cooperatives] used to be worshipped in every household sanctum once upon a time,” he says. “I was able to convince them of the corrupt practices by which these sugar cooperatives are being run.”

The price of sugar used to be decided in Baramati by Sharad Pawar (Union Agriculture Minister) once upon a time, he says. Through his Oos Andolan (Sugarcane Movement), Mr. Shetti gathered sugarcane growers and demanded that the government fix the price of sugarcane before the season started.

Now, there is an Oos Parishad every year in Jaysingpur where the price at which the produce will be sold is decided and only then does the production begin. He conducted a similar movement for increasing the price of milk and became a mass-base leader.

However, Vasant Bhosale, editor of Sakaal, a Marathi daily in Kolhapur, downplays Mr. Shetti’s importance. He attributes the NCP’s loss to the tension between the Congress and the NCP before the elections. “Though Sharad Pawar himself said that he could not become Prime Minister on the strength of just 10-12 seats, the entire second line of NCP leadership pitched him as the Prime Minister . That created a rift between the two parties. As a result, the NCP candidate from Hatkanangle did not receive the support of Congress workers.”

Mr. Bhosale does not disregard the work done by Mr. Shetti. However, he also attributes the Swabhimani Paksha leader’s successes to the weather.

“At the start of the season this year, the price of sugar was Rs.1,400 per quintal. But because of the drought, the price has gone up to Rs.2,400 per quintal. Companies were thus able to pay sugarcane growers Rs. 1600 per quintal, about Rs. 400 per quintal more than what they were paid all these years. This helped his movement.”

N.D. Patil, a senior leader of the Peasants and Workers’ Party (PWP) that is a constituent of the RLDF, too has a word of caution. There is a dispute between Sadashivrao Mandlik and Mr. Shetti, both of whom are Lok Sabha members from Kolhapur and also parts of the RLDF, over the Radhanagari seat.

Mr. Patil admits that the dispute could have “some repercussions” that he “hopes” will not extend beyond the seat. “Negotiations will have to take place before the date for withdrawals,” he says. However, he adds, “The NCP has lost seats that were considered its pocket boroughs.”

Whether the RLDF, particularly the star power of Mr. Shetti, is able to capitalise on the NCP’s lost ground remains to be seen.