Nandurbar, tucked away in a corner of northern Maharashtra, shares a special bond with India’s most powerful political dynasty. The Gandhis have always chosen this impoverished, tribal-dominated region to launch their national election campaign. And Nandurbar has remained with the Congress continuously since 1967.
This time, things are different. Unable to break into the Congress bastion on its own, the BJP has “imported” Heena Gavit, the 26-year-old daughter of expelled Nationalist Congress Party heavyweight Vijay Kumar Gavit, to take on 80-year-old sitting MP Manikrao Gavit.
It is going to be a close, straight contest between the union minister and the postgraduate student of medicine, local political observers say, the presence of a candidate from the Aam Aadmi Party notwithstanding.
Nandurbar’s geographical location adds to the political contest for the seat. The region sits at the junction of three states, and is bordered by Narendra Modi’s Gujarat on one side, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Madhya Pradesh on the other. And while Nandurbar has been the Congress’s chosen theatre to launch its marquee development and welfare schemes, an overwhelming percentage of the district’s rural population turns to urban centres like Surat, Bardoli, and Ankleshwar in Gujarat to earn a living through odd jobs for up to eight months every year.
Senior political analyst Yogendra Dorkar said Modi would love the narrative of having turned this Gandhi family bastion saffron. “It would be a symbolic victory for the BJP,” Dorkar said.
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The political demographic may be changing too, if the declining vote share for the Congress and the widening appeal of Modi’s message of growth is any indication. “For the first time, people are talking about a political leader other than the Gandhis, and it is Narendra Modi,” Dorkar said.
The vote share for Manikrao Gavit, who is seeking a record tenth term, has declined steadily from 63 per cent in 1984 to 45 per cent in 1996 to 36 per cent in 2009. The triangular fight among the Congress, BJP and Samajwadi Party, in fact, saved the day for Manikrao the last time.
Villagers, activists and local politicians said support for the Congress has been declining because the party has been unable to live up to the basic needs of adivasi voters: electricity, pucca roads and water.
Despite its political significance and loyalty to the Congress, the region has remained the underbelly of tribal Maharashtra, plagued by poverty, starvation and malnutrition. It is counted among the country’s most backward districts, which sees a large number of child malnutrition deaths.
At Sipanpada, a tribal hamlet in the Satpura hills, 41-year-old Udya Vasave said he has to go to Gujarat in search of work every year. “I have my own land, but it is not irrigated, and farming can be done only during the monsoon,” he said. “The produce has to be sold cheap locally because there are no proper means to transport it to markets farther away. After the monsoon is over, there is no employment.”
Vasave is in a minority; most tribal families in Nandurbar are landless. Despite the fact that the Tapti and Narmada flow through the district, water is scarce. Vijaysing Walvi, a volunteer with the Narmada Bachao Andolan said, “While farms and urban pockets in Gujarat are reaping the benefits of Narmada water, tribal families here are forced to walk miles in search of drinking water.”
Kamla Walvi, who lives in an adjoining village, said he did not know of the UPA government’s flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme. “Nobody has offered us the benefit,” he said.
In September 2010, Congress president Sonia Gandhi chose Tembhli village in Nandurbar’s Dhadgaon taluka to roll out the government’s ambitious Aadhar project. Three and a half years later, the woman who received the first unique identity number says she has nothing other than a number.
“My family is yet to derive any benefit from the unique identity. What is the point of simply holding the number,” Ranjana Sonawane said.
Raju Thakre, 52, who lives in the same village as Sonawane, said houses were given power connections and roads were built when Sonia visited. “We were told that we would have to pay Rs 30 per month for electricity. But within eight months, we started to get bills of Rs 500 or more. When we find it difficult to make two ends meet, how are we expected to pay so much for electricity?” he said.
Power to the village was disconnected last June.
In Zankhti, situated higher up in the Satpuras, the lack of basic amenities is more stark. “A private car has made it here for the first time ever,” Vansing Walvi, a graduate without a job, said, as the entire village gathered around the car in which The Indian Express reporter and photographer had travelled.
Zankhti has no power. “Sixty-seven years after India became independent, our village still has no independence,” Vansing Walvi said.
Another tribal man, Thogya Vasave, added, “There are no healthcare facilities nearby. During an emergency, the patient has to literally carried in our arms to the plains.”
But for the informal schools called Jeevan Shalas supported by the NBA, the tribals would be deprived of even basic schooling. A state-run ashram school in the hamlet had not reopened after Holi, with teachers and the principal yet to return from vacation. “Exams are only a few weeks away,” said an NBA volunteer. He added that he knows of another similar facility that has been shut since November 2013.
While some local people did not know who Modi was, everyone was quick to point out that the Kanji tribal hamlet, located only 3 km away in Gujarat, had power and water supply. During a public hearing last week, it came to light that polio vaccination rounds had not been conducted in some villages of Nandurbar.
Faced with a formidable opponent, the Congress plans to get Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar to campaign against Vijay Kumar Gavit and his daugher. In response to Heena’s attacks, Manikrao Gavit insists that the “problem of malnutrition has been exaggerated, and exists because tribals marry at an early age”. He blames Maharashtra’s state government for “not paying enough attention to the problem”.
Congress heavyweight Surupsinh Naik blamed “Congress infighting for the rise of other parties in the region”. Manikrao Gavit accused Vijay Kumar Gavit of squandering public money when he was a minister in the state government. “The NCP gave him unbridled powers to work against us in the first place,” he said.