In 1978, 29-year-old Jiva Pandu Gavit became that rare candidate who managed to win the state Assembly election from the tribal-dominated Kalwan Surgana constituency in spite of failing to get enough votes to save his election deposit.
Since then, Gavit has emerged as one of the most influential tribal leaders in the state. He has represented Kalwan Surgana seven times. Now, there are hopes that just as providentially as he entered state politics, he would be able to end the drought for CPI(M) in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha elections.
The party last won a Lok Sabha seat from the state in 1991. While the farmers’ long march called by the CPI(M)-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) earlier this week was seen as a protest to highlight agrarian distress, many also saw it as an electoral ploy and a testing of waters for Gavit’s imminent candidature as the party’s Lok Sabha candidate from Dindori. The seat is currently held by BJP’s Harishchandra Chavan, who is a three-time MP from Dindori.
The CPI(M) is hoping that a deal with the Congress-NCP combine could give Gavit, who has a substantial following in the area, a chance to win the seat. Gavit himself has remained non-committal but party leaders claim that they are trying to influence the Congress-NCP leadership to support Gavit in Dindori.
Senior NCP leader Chaggan Bhujbal had come out in support of the AIKS’ long march, which Gavit was leading, and had also held extensive talks with the CPI(M) state leadership.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Gavit said: “I am fully aware of my capabilities as well as limitations. There has been no decision on me fighting Lok Sabha elections from Dindori so far. The party has to decide on this and I, as a disciplined party worker, will do what the party orders.”
Gavit’s long experience battling for a cause, which has a few takers, began in Aurangabad in 1972. The son of landless workers, he dropped out of college at a time when the state was hit by a massive drought. He subsequently took up work as a Mukadam or foreman, also maintaining the payment records of the tribal workers working in his unit.
“There was rampant exploitation of tribal workers. While on books, a worker was to be paid a certain amount, in reality, he would be paid less than half. I was a student of Milind college in Aurangabad set up by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. That institution had revolutionary fervour, which rubbed off on me. It was in this period that I studied Marxism,” Gavit said.
After a period unionising the workers, he formally joined the CPI(M) and was given the ticket from Surgana in 1975. There were 13 other candidates in the fray. The massive splitting of votes meant that all of them, including Gavit, lost their deposits.
“I got 7,500 votes. That was the highest. However, none of us could get the requisite one-sixth of the total votes required to save your election deposit. I won the elections but lost my deposit,” Gavit said.
Since then, Surgana has been a CPI(M) stronghold. He had won seven of the last nine Assembly elections and the party has retained control of the Surgana Panchayat Samiti for the last three decades without a break.
Many believe that Gavit has been the driving force in ensuring the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the state. Maharashtra has, so far, distributed over one lakh titles under this Act. Over 20,000 of these titles have been granted in the Surgana Kalwan belt alone, largely due to Gavit’s efforts.
“He is very diligent when it comes to following up on implementation of government policies. I guess a lot of work gets done here because he is around. It is difficult to mess with a leader who can gather a crowd of thousands with just one phone call,” said a government official working in Surgana Taluka.
Many non tribals in the region feel that Gavit has “spoiled” the tribals. “It is difficult to get tribal labourers to work on our terms these days. They are not poor anymore. Gavit has trained his boys pretty well,” said Raju Shaikh, a transporter from Kalwan, who regularly hires tribals as workers.
Gavit accepts these accusations as a badge of honour. “If my presence gives my people the confidence of living with dignity, then I believe I have led a useful life.”