THE farmers’ stir in Maharashtra, which entered its seventh day Wednesday, has further widened the mistrust between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its warring ally Shiv Sena. The BJP feels its ally is scrambling even more than the Opposition to cash in on the growing anger in the farming community.
A senior BJP minister confirmed to The Indian Express that the Shiv Sena’s “role” in the ongoing protest was discussed in detail during a meeting convened by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at his official residence late Tuesday evening to take stock of the crisis. All BJP ministers were present at the urgently convened meeting. “We have specific inputs in this regard,” said the minister.
The Shiv Sena, on the other hand, has continued to publicly target Fadnavis and the BJP over the issue. On Wednesday, Sena ministers boycotted the cabinet meeting. “We (the Shiv Sena) have not been taken into confidence over the farm loan waiver issue. The chief minister must spell out his stance on loan waiver,” said Sena minister Subhash Desai. “The government cannot take a decision on the loan waiver issue without consulting (Shiv Sena president) Uddhav Thackeray,” he added.
Thackeray’s party has joined the chorus for a blanket loan waiver, which Fadnavis is not in favour of. Later in the day, Sena MP Sanjay Raut sounded a veiled warning to the ally: “The government can be strangled in no time.”
However, with Shiv Sena’s 25,893 votes crucial for winning the upcoming Presidential polls, the BJP core group has decided against a direct face-off with the ally for now.
During the meeting Tuesday, said another BJP minister, it was decided to piece together a counter-narrative focussed on issues that could strike a chord with the farmers. The party has now planned to hold farmer meets across the state to “correct the negative perception”.
Sensing that there was some resentment against those in positions of power, the BJP’s strategy is to field some of its known farm sector faces to lead the counter-narrative. As part of the game plan, the BJP has also asked its guardian ministers to organise farmer outreach campaign in various districts. “It is a fact that we haven’t been able to effectively communicate the various measures taken to support the rural economy. It was decided to intensify the communications campaign,” said a BJP minister. A massive spot advertising campaign has also been planned.
“The resentment is most visible in Ahmednagar, Nashik, and Pune. Concerted outreach efforts will be made in these belts,” the minister added. Keen to corner the BJP and exploit the simmering tension between the ruling allies, state Congress chief Ashok Chavan has demanded a special session of the state legislature to discuss the loan waiver issue.
Meanwhile, hinting that the government’s proposed loan waiver would be limited to defaulted crop loans of farmers with small landholdings, the government Wednesday appointed a committee under Pune Divisional Commissioner Chandrakant Dalvi, asking it to study crop loans provided by various district and commercial banks to farmers. The committee has also been asked to collate taluka-wise data on the landholding pattern among farmers.
While Fadnavis had earlier indicated that his government would extend a relief package to farmers with landholdings below 5 acres, high level sources said the government could adopt a region-wise cap to ensure vulnerable farmers in suicide-prone Vidarbha and Marathwada were covered under the package. While the average farm holding of marginal farmers in western and north Maharashtra is below 5 acres, the same average is much more in the two suicide-prone belts. The committee has also been asked to study the loan-waiver model adopted by Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, and submit its report within 15 days.
On Wednesday morning, Shiv Sena ministers met Fadnavis to convey their inability to attend the meeting. The reason cited was that party president Uddhav Thackeray was on a holiday abroad and as a result, the strategy of the party will have to be discussed and the future course of action would be taken after his arrival and meeting with party leaders.
Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said: “The Shiv Sena has not boycotted the cabinet. They sought permission from the chief minister to skip the meeting. We will discuss it with the Sena after Thackeray’s return. We will take the Sena into confidence and consult them on the loan waiver issue as was done for the Goods and Services Tax.”
A senior Sena minister told The Indian Express: “We were all set to participate in the cabinet meeting. But we realised there is a Nashik bandh call that will see the participation of our local leaders. If we had taken part in the cabinet meeting, it would have blunt our support to the farmers’ cause.”
Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said: “The ministers have boycotted the cabinet meeting as we demand a complete loan waiver for farmers.”
A political manager in the BJP, however, said: “This is not the first time that Sena has thrown tantrums. Whenever they are on the back foot, they indulge in an act to embarrass the government. But by now the people can see the double standards of the Sena.”
A Sena leader said: “We believe the loan waiver should be for all farmers and not just for small and marginal ones.”
The Sena’s demand is being dismissed as not being practical. Both the Congress and the NCP’s demand for loan waiver was limited to the debt-ridden 31 lakh small and marginal farmers who did not have access to fresh crop loan.
There are 1.36 crore farmers in the state and 31 lakh of them are debt-ridden and out of the institutional credit bracket since 2012. The number has now increased to 40 lakh farmers.
Loan waiver to 40 lakh farmers works out to around Rs 30,000 crore. Whereas, if the state government were to consider the Sena demand for a loan waiver for 1.36 crore farmers, the total amount required would be Rs 1.14 lakh crore. According to sources, now, the total state budget is Rs 2.57 lakh crore and the essential expenditure is Rs 1.77 lakh crore. Extending loan waiver to all farmers would bring the state machinery to a standstill, sources said.