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Will another change of allies yield political dividends for Raju Shetti?

Raju Shetti

Raju Shetti | Photo Credit: File Photo

The recent exit of MVA ally and Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana (SSS) chief Raju Shetti from the ruling coalition in Maharashtra has evoked scarcely a whimper amid the high decibel political war of words over raids by central enforcement agencies on ministers and their extended families.

When NCP chief Sharad Pawar was asked about the possible consequences of Mr. Shetti’s exit at a recent press conference in New Delhi, he merely shrugged and observed that the farmer leader had been disenchanted with the State government for a while now.

Meanwhile, Mr Shetti — twice MP from Hatkanangale in Kolhapur and formerly allied with the BJP — now considers himself a “free man”, not bound by any ties to the four major parties [BJP, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, Congress] in the State.

Mr. Shetti insists that despite his shifting alliances — first with the BJP (until his exit from the NDA in 2017) and later with the NCP and the Congress — his core base of 4.5 lakh-odd voters in the ‘sugar belt’ of Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts remains intact. He insisted that the SSS and its political wing, the Swabhimani Paksha, were still a force to reckon with in Maharashtra politics.

‘Farmers let down’

“Agricultural inputs, be it fertilizer cost or diesel prices, have risen by a staggering 25% in less than three years. Neither the BJP-led Centre nor the three parties of the MVA have done anything to alleviate the plight of farmers other than utter shallow promises. All four parties have betrayed the farmers,” he told The Hindu.

Be it the issue of paying a fair and remunerative price (FRP) to farmers in one single instalment, adequate compensation to farmers hit by the 2019 Kolhapur-Sangli floods or waiving off electricity bills, the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA has proved a major disappointment, Mr. Shetti said.

Henceforth, the focus of the SSS would be on rebuilding the farmers’ movement in Maharashtra, particularly in the western region which is the stronghold of the State’s ‘sugar barons’, and offering an alternative to the rural electorate in there, he said.

With this in mind, the SSS will launch the ‘Hunkaar Yatra’ on April 15 to challenge both State and Central governments on their “unfulfilled promises” to farmers.

Chequered journey

Mr. Shetti, who was mentored by the late stalwart agrarian activist Sharad Joshi, broke off from the latter’s Shetkari Sanghatana to found the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna whose political wing, the Swabhimani Paksha, was formed in 2004. That year, he won the Assembly seat as an Independent from Shirol in Kolhapur.

“Regardless of whom the SSS has allied with, they never stopped focussing on issues affecting farmers. In fact, the rationale for allying first with the BJP and later with the NCP-Congress at different times was motivated by the fact that these parties had assured that farmers’ questions would be addressed once they were in power. Since that has not happened, our focus has returned to expanding the farmers’ movement in the State,” said Swabhimani Paksha leader Anil Pawar.

According to him, it was on the urging of late BJP leader Gopinath Munde that the SSS decided to join the NDA.

“Then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured us that the BJP would implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations and fix the Minimum Support Price (MSP). However, after more than two years, they had no intention to do it and hence we were forced to pull out of the NDA in 2017. The same has happened to our relationship with the MVA,” says Mr. Anil Pawar.

According to party sources, the SSS is also trying to take a leaf from the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) playbook in the Punjab as it goes about rebuilding its base among Maharashtra’s farmers.

The party’s re-organization has been underway for some time now: In December 2019, Mr. Shetti, in a major overhaul, dissolved his party’s working committee to rebuild the organization before the 2024 Parliamentary and Maharashtra Assembly polls.

Its seriousness on fielding candidates loyal to the SSS’ ethos is evinced by the recent expelling of the party’s lone MLA, Devendra Bhuyar, who had won the Morshi Assembly segment in Amravati district in the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly election.

“He was increasingly identifying himself with the NCP and did not remain present in our programmes and party-building activities. Hence, we had no choice but to expel him,” says Mr. Shetti.

Yet just three years ago, Mr. Bhuyar, a grassroots activist handpicked by Mr. Shetti for the 2019 Assembly polls, had emerged as a ‘giant killer’ to defeat BJP leader and State Agriculture Minister, Anil Bonde from Morshi.

Similarly, Mr. Shetti had no qualms about expelling his one-time right-hand man Sadabhau Khot, who was propped up by the BJP against him in a bid to break the SSS’ hold in western Maharashtra.

Mr. Shetti first came to political prominence in 2004 as an avowed nemesis of NCP chief Sharad Pawar and the ‘sugar lobby’ headed by NCP and Congress politicos in Kolhapur, Satara, Sangli and other districts in the State’s ‘sugar belt’.

After winning the Shirol Assembly seat as an Independent in 2004, Mr. Shetti had trumped the NCP’s MP Nivedita Mane in the 2009 general election, to win the Hatkanangale Lok Sabha seat by a margin of more than 95,000 votes. In 2014, he allied his party with the BJP and was re-elected by an even greater margin of 1.77 lakh votes.

It marked his emergence as an authentic farmers’ voice in Parliament.

However, Mr. Shetti soon turned into a vociferous critic of the Narendra Modi and the Devendra Fadnavis governments at the Centre and the State. His antagonism towards the BJP led to Mr. Shetti casting his lot with Sharad Pawar’s NCP – his one-time enemy – ahead of the 2019 Parliamentary election.

But the new alliance proved costly, with Mr. Shetti’s seemingly sure grip on Hatkanangale undercut by the Shiv Sena’s youthful Dhairyasheel Mane (son of Nivedita Mane), who defeated him in what turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in the State during the Lok Sabha election.

A number of observers attributed the defeat to the perception that Mr. Shetti, who once was the champion of the small farmer against the big cooperatives and the politicos who controlled them, had gone over the other side by joining hands with Sharad Pawar.

Yet, Mr. Shetti insists that whichever party he allied with, he had consistently fought for the interests of farmers and had taken to the streets to agitate for better prices for dairy and sugarcane farmers.  

For the moment, it is back to brass tacks as the farmer leader speaks of the SSS putting up a stiff fight for the Buldhana and Hatkanangale seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha election as well as a clutch of seats for the 2024 Maharashtra Assembly election.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2022 8:09:06 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/will-another-change-of-allies-yield-political-dividends-for-raju-shetti/article65308674.ece