The Swabhimani Paksha’s decision to go alone in the upcoming general elections has the potential to harm the Congress-NCP more than the BJP-Shiv Sena. The political wing of the farmers’ outfit Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana has its support base mainly in the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra, which has traditionally been the stronghold of the NCP and Congress.
The founder of the Sanghatana, farmer leader Raju Shetti, has been elected twice from Hatkanangale Lok Sabha constituency in Kolhapur district. In 2009, Shetti created history by defeating the NCP’s Nivedita Mane by almost 1 lakh votes; in 2014, he got over 6.4 lakh votes, beating Congress stalwart Kallappa Awade by more than 1.75 lakh votes. Hatkanangale Lok Sabha constituency was created after delimitation in 2008.
In 2014, Shetti joined hands with the NDA. The Paksha fielded a second candidate as well — Sadashiv Khot, who lost at the Madha seat to former Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Vijaysinh Mohite Patil of the NCP by just 25,000 votes. (Khot, who was subsequently elected to the Legislative Council with BJP support and made a Minister in the state government, was expelled by the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana in August 2017.)
In the Assembly elections of both 2009 and 2014, the Paksha polled more than 3 lakh votes. It did not win a seat, but came a close second in several Western Maharashtra constitutencies and in many cases ended up determining the result.
At the end of August 2017, Shetti walked out of the NDA protesting the central government’s apathy on farmers’ issues. Since then, he has been working to create a pan India farmer’s body, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC). The body drafted two Bills seeking full loan waivers for the farm sector and implementation of the C Rangarajan Committee recommendations, i.e., realisation of 1.5 times the cost of production for agri produce, which Shetti introduced as Private Member’s Bills in Parliament.
Shetti had indicated that he would be willing to ally with the Opposition to defeat the BJP and had asked for three seats — Hatkanangale, Buldhana and Wardha — for the Swabhimani Paksha. After the Congress and NCP refused, however, Shetti has decided to chart his own path and field candidates in 15 seats.
This is bad news for the NCP-Congress because both the Paksha and the Opposition combine draw their support from the same set of voters. The division in the anti-BJP vote is likely to help the ruling alliance. This is especially so at seats that see tight contests and thin victory margins.
The absence of a strong election machine and adequate numbers of workers on the ground could make it tough for the Paksha to win seats, but they are likely to spoil the party for the NCP-Congress at some seats. It was for this reason that both NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and Congress president Rahul Gandhi had wanted the farmers’ body with them, but the chances of a rapprochement now appear slim.