Farmers’ leader Raju Shetti was one of the many opposition leaders who had to encounter the bitter taste of defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. After winning from the Hatkanangale seat in Kolhapur in the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Swabhimani Paksha chief suffered a shock defeat this year, when he was beaten by Shiv Sena leader Dhairyasheel Mane. Analysing the reasons behind his defeat, Shetti tells The Indian Express that opposition leaders failed to “counter the propaganda” of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.
Why do you think the issue of rural distress failed to play a part in the general elections? In Marathwada and Vidarbha, where such distress was maximum, the BJP won almost all the Lok Sabha seats. Why did that happen?
Analysis of the results shows that the opposition failed to highlight the issue to the extent it should have. The Congress had made the supposed Rafale scam a central pillar of its campaign, but the issue failed to resonate much with the people. Issues that matter in people’s daily lives, like the prices of commodities or the drought in the state, didn’t get centrestage, and even voters refused to consider them while casting their votes.
A few days ago, I was in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, to mark the anniversary of the death of six farmers in police firing. Farmers in large numbers braved the scorching sun to gather there and pay their respects. While speaking to them, I realised that their angst at the distress was real, but Mandasaur elected a BJP MP with a thumping majority. This speaks to the monumental failure of the opposition to channelise anger in rural areas.
I think asking questions about the surgical strike, post the Balakot attack, had rubbed the electorate in the wrong way. By repeatedly doing so, the Congress and other opposition parties walked into the trap laid by BJP and lost their chance with the voters.
In your constituency, Hatkanangale, it is said the Maratha card had a major role to play in Mane’s victory? How do you read the results of Hatkanangale?
We need to understand that since 2014, identity politics has taken centrestage, with people identifying themselves on the basis of their religion, caste and nationalism, rather than on issues. While I agree that the Maratha card (Shetti is a Jain while Mane is a Maratha) did have an impact, I would not say it was the sole reason for my defeat. If that was the case, I would not have got leads in Shirala, Walva and other Maratha-dominated areas.
In Hatkanangale, my defeat can be attributed to a number of reasons. The image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a strong leader, especially after the surgical strike, had appealed to younger voters in the 18-25 age group. In fact, there are households where the parents voted for me while the younger generation voted for Mane. Also, the canards spread among farm labourers and daily wage earners by the well-oiled machinery of BJP and RSS made them vote the other way. Other groups which moved away from me were the middle-class and the traders who, till 2014, had been with me. Now they have moved lock, stock and barrel to the Modi camp.
Having said that, doubts about the tampering of electronic voting machines still linger in my mind… but I do not have any proof to substantiate them.
Is this the end of politics based on bhav (prices of agricultural commodities)? You have based your political career on the issue of sugarcane pricing. Do you have to find a new way to appeal to voters? Also, will the creation of a farmers’ votebank be possible now?
Unfortunately, farm prices failed to play a part in the electoral outcome as farmers refused to vote on those issues. As I said earlier, they identify themselves more on the line of religion and caste, rather than as agrarians. I will admit this is a setback for the farmers’ movement, which has been geared towards the creation of a votebank of farmers. The mindset of farmers is such that they feel their identify as farmers is not strong enough an issue during the elections, it also indicates a failure of leaders like us.
Since the last few years, we have also seen Soviet-style propaganda machinery unleashed on voters by the ruling party through the electronic and social media. The reach and extent of print media has gone down and constant hammering on the minds of the voters through other sources has played its part. There is no way of substantiating the untruths and propaganda spread on social media, and voters do get influenced by them. This speaks volumes about the failure of opposition leaders like us, who have failed to counter this.
As for us, we have to start again from scratch to make issues matter as political talking points.. it’s not going to be an easy task but we will try.
What is your plan of action for the upcoming assembly elections? Will you talk to Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (an umbrella body of political parties) leader Prakash Ambedkar and try to induct him in the alliance?
I will try to create a broadbase of opposition parties to prevent the splitting of opposition votes. We have to admit that the presence of a VBA candidates affected the electoral outcome in many seats, even in Hatkanangale. I have not spoken to Ambedkar yet but may do so later.