FARMER leader Raju Shetti, whose party Swabhimani Paksh has fought a bitter battle with the Congress and NCP in Western Maharashtra, the sugar bowl of the state, appears set to join hands with the Congress-led front in Maharashtra, which could set the alarm bells ringing in the BJP ahead of the 2019 Assembly elections. Both the Congress and NCP are in touch with him and seem to be making all-out efforts to woo him.
“Come what may I am not going to rejoin the BJP-led NDA,” Shetti told The Indian Express on Monday. On speculations that he would join the Congress-led front in Maharashtra before the 2019 elections, Shetti said a final decision would be taken at the party’s national executive committee meeting slated in the coming days. “We have had offers from the Congress to join their front. But we have not taken a decision so far,” said Shetti, indicating that personally he was in favour of joining the Congress-led front but not the BJP-led front “under any circumstances”.
Slamming the BJP, Shetti said the saffron party had cheated farmers. “It promised to waive loans of debt-ridden farmers but farmers have so far got nothing,” he said.
In August last year, Shetti quit the BJP-led NDA alleging the Modi government had failed to keep its word on the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations on MSP to farmers. Shetti, who heads the Swabhimani Paksh, the political wing of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna, has had two crucial meetings — one with NCP chief Sharad Pawar, the other with state Congress chief Ashok Chavan.
While Chavan had personally met Shetti last month, Pawar met him after a function in Kolhapur two days ago. In Kolhapur, Shetti and Pawar shared the stage for the first time in 14 years. “There was no bitterness when we met after so many years. In fact, Pawar justified my criticism of the Congress-NCP government when it was in power saying such opposition kept the government on toes,” he said.
Shetti, who represents the Hatkanangle Lok Sabha seat, said those words were music to his ears as the NCP had targeted him viciously during the elections. His party had faced similar opposition in Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara districts, the cash-rich sugarcane belt of Maharashtra.
Shetti said though Pawar did not directly suggest his party join hands with the Congress-NCP, he had received feelers from top NCP leaders. “In fact, Pawar showered praise on me, saying I have dedicated my life for the upliftment of farmers. Pawar also credited me and himself for the Centre’s decision on export of sugar and prohibiting import of sugar,” he said. On his meeting with Ashok Chavan, Shetti said, “Chavan personally met me at his residence and urged me to join the Congress-led front. Initially, they urged us to join the ‘Hullabol’ agitation in Nagpur but for some reason we couldn’t make it,” he said.
Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant said efforts were under way to get all like-minded parties together to take on the BJP. “Shetti’s party is one of them. Preliminary talks have been held but nothing has been finalised as yet,” he said.
Sawant said if the Swabhimani Paksh joins the Congress-led front, it will surely give the BJP camp the jitters. Another Congress leader said Shetti could be a major game-changer as farmers across the state hold a grudge against the present government. Shetti said though his party had only one MLA, it secured 12 per cent of the votes in Western Maharashtra. “Besides, I have been regularly visiting Marathwada where I have held several meetings with farmers. The response has been huge. Farmers are upset with the BJP-led government,” he said.
The BJP, however, played it down, saying Shetti was leaning towards those who tried to finish him politically. “All his political life Shetti has fought bitterly with the Congress-NCP. Now, if he joins hands with them, it will certainly send out confusing signals among voters in Western Maharashtra. As it is, Shetti’s appeal is limited to certain areas only…,” said BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.
Another BJP leader said if Shetti joins the Congress-led front, it won’t affect them much as his one-time close lieutenant, Sadabhau Khot, is a minister in the Devendra Fadnavis government and popular among farmers. “Khot may not be equally popular but has good support among farmers,” he said.