In Maharashtra, where issues hurl themselves at you, the Opposition failed to mount a strong campaign on a single one of them.
The front rows of the Mumbai-Nagpur flight are usually the province of the political class: MLAs to MPs, ministers and fixers. This time, though, quite a few of the occupants were celebrities: television and film stars, major and minor, middling and mediocre. It wasn’t the T-20 cricket match in Nagpur drawing them, but a far greater sport. They were going to Vidarbha for the last two days of campaigning before polling day. Shameless eavesdropping did not help us figure out which candidates specifically they were to campaign for. It wasn’t evident that they knew much about that themselves. Logistics seemed a more major concern. “You’re lucky,” grumbled one little celeb to a neighbour. “You have to travel just half an hour out of Nagpur. The place I’m going is about three hours drive away.”
In fairness to them, their failure to mention any issue at all they would be campaigning on was no worse (and less pretentious) than the performance of the major political parties in Maharashtra on the same score. In a State where the issues hurl themselves at you — and in a region where they kick you in the face — the opposition failed to mount a strong campaign on a single one of them. Armed with weapons that could slaughter one of the worst performing State governments in decades — from millions of job losses to food prices and the fall in food production, to the farm crisis — they did nothing. Call it electoral ahimsa. The voting public might still ram home those issues on their own in today’s polling, but it could be a response divided between too many fronts.
Even in Western Vidarbha which rejected the Congress-NCP in every one of its five Lok Sabha seats this May, the paralysis of the opposition is apparent. So much so that President Pratibha Patil’s son, Rajendra Shekhawat, who was struggling just a week ago in Amravati, is now in the race and doing not so badly. That too against a far more experienced and locally-rooted Sunil Deshmukh — twice MLA from here and a Minister of State — who locals see as betrayed by the Congress when they denied him the ticket. The BJP candidate seems not to be in the race at all.
The Sena-BJP led in 30 of Vidharbha’s 62 Assembly segments in the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress-NCP in 27. But that advantage has not been anchored or expanded by the saffron front as much as it might have been. A poor choice of candidates and a lack of fire on the issues have offset any offensive. As Vidharbha’s leading intellectual on agrarian issues, Vijay Jawandhia, says: “This year, the soybean crop has failed. The cotton crop is in trouble. The ground water level is twenty feet below normal for this time of year. And there will be no rabi crop. Support prices are a mess. And on the credit front, we are heading for disaster. The impact of these two successive years of drought could be worse than it was in 1972.”
The Lashkari-alli (or military worm) has consumed much of the soybean crop in just days — and destroyed farmers such as Arju Kavdoji Tarekar in Seoni Rasalapur in Amravati. He tried taking his life on Independence Day after finding all the crop on his nine-acre, rain-fed farm gone overnight. “I have never seen pest consume such a large area so quickly,” he says. He went to appeal for help from the Tehsildar’s office where “they abused me and turned me away, asking why I had come there. Where else could I go?” Devastated, Tarekar tried ending his life on the spot by swallowing pesticide but failed. “The police were called in. They arrested me, took me away, detained me for a day and yelled at me: ‘Why die here? Go die in your own fields and don’t trouble us.’” He still receives the odd oral ‘summons’ to appear and explain his ‘crime.’
But while farmers reel under crop failure, it was hard to find this focused on in the campaigns. In a region where several candidates and re-contesting MLAs have increased their assets by over 1,000 per cent since 2004, the thrust is different. One liquor baron has sought to keep voters’ spirits up in the way he knows best and at huge expense. Thousands were also out canvassing for candidates they cared little about (and may not even vote for). For people finding little or no work, the daily payment and meals on the campaign trail were welcome. The campaigns were costly, competing chaos.
In a State where a single MLA increased his assets by Rs. 520 million between his election in 2004 and this year; where MLAs of the outgoing Assembly saw their assets rise by 339 per cent on average in that period, it was sobering to run into Babytai Bais. She is contesting from Wani in Yavatmal district as an independent, supported by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). Her aim: “to unite the 7,000 farm widows and 35,000 orphans of Vidarbha whose concerns are common, to lead a life of dignity and honour.” Babytai’s indebted husband was one of thousands of farmers in the region who committed suicide during this past decade, crushed by the ongoing agrarian crisis. Their farm land remains in the name of his father, which leaves Babytai with nothing. Even their small house (worth Rs.50,000) that finds mention in her affidavit is not in her name. She’ll be lucky to see it transferred to her son’s name at some point, not her own.
So what assets has she, anyway? Just one: a fixed deposit of Rs. 70,000 — exactly the compensation amount for the loss of her husband that the government placed in a bank for her. That too, in an account jointly held with the district Collector. That’s it. She has nothing more. Except the candle that is her poll symbol. Babytai came into the fray very late, after Kalavati’s sudden withdrawal. So she has had barely ten days to get her campaign going from scratch. Yet, she contests, taking seriously her responsibility towards thousands of other ‘farm widows and orphans’ in the region. Up against the most awesome money power, it’s almost impossible for her to win, and she knows it. But she might just have lit that candle.
First published in The Hindu October 13, 2009