KOLHAPUR, Maharashtra— Raju Shetti, chief of the farmers’ party, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS), and a former ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra, said he is upset about the right-wing party’s focus on Article 370 and Kashmir during the ongoing campaign for the assembly election in the state.
“Is the election for Kashmir or Maharashtra? During Vidhan Sabha elections, they should talk about issues being faced by the people of the state about what they will do (for them),” Shetti told HuffPost India in an interview in the Western Maharashtra city of Kolhapur in the middle of the heated last few days of the campaign. The state will vote on 21 October, and results will be announced three days later.
The two-time Member of Parliament, who suffered an unexpected defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election after he parted ways with the ruling party, said the BJP “only raises issues from which it can get political benefit. It is not at all interested in finding solutions to issues”.
Shetti weighed in on Article 370 and Kashmir in reply to a question about Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent speeches in poll-bound Maharashtra, where the two leaders repeatedly spoke about the withdrawal of special status to Kashmir.
On CM Devendra Fadnavis’ recent announcement while releasing the BJP manifesto that, if elected again, his government would create 1 crore jobs, Shetti said, “They are still talking about the carrot of promises. You are talking about giving one crore jobs, but what happened to the 72,000 government jobs you were going to give people? It has been over a year-and-a-half since this announcement of a ‘Mega Recruitment’ was made. They should tell what happened to that promise. There has been a ‘mega recruitment’ in the BJP, not the government.”
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Shetti’s party is contesting from five assembly seats in an alliance with Congress-NCP this time. An Economic Times report described the election as the “biggest litmus” test for Shetti.
Speaking with HuffPost India on a day when his deputy and SSS’s Maharashtra state president Ravikant Tupkar rejoined the party after briefly joining a BJP-allied party, Shetti dismissed worries of large-scale defections from his party to the BJP.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
The BJP is widely expected to win and the opposition’s poll prospects are poor. What do you think is responsible for this state of affairs: poor campaign and internal lack of unity of opposition parties or the government’s good performance? Or both?
Government performance is very bad. People’s issues are grave. Unemployment, job losses in industry, economic slowdown—because of these everybody is severely affected. And because of natural disasters, the farmer is suffering. Under these circumstances, the resulting public outrage ought to have been channelised. But that is not visible; those who are doing it, their strength is not enough and those who must do it aren’t up to the task.
That is so because, during the peak election season, the BJP-Shiv Sena succeeded in poaching important opposition party leaders. Now the problem opposition parties are facing is that they were depending upon these leaders during elections. With them having gone, a vacuum has been created. And it will have to be admitted candidly that they (BJP-Shiv Sena) managed to create chaos in the opposition. That is the reason for this situation. And it is taking time to emerge from that and face the election.
Now this is what is superficially visible. But you must understand that the people have decided something else. And you will see it for yourself after the election. In 1980 as well, under the rule of the Janata Party, many people left the Congress in large numbers. But after that, Indira Gandhi made a comeback after giving opportunities to third and fourth-tier party workers, and the Congress revived in the true sense. Vilasrao Deshmukh was one of the leaders who emerged during this period. Many such people emerged in the Congress at the time.
Sharad Pawar is playing the same role that Indira Gandhi played at the time. Even at this age, Pawar’s public meetings are getting response from the people. So he is playing that role.
You saying this is interesting because you were one of his bitter critics once and in a political camp opposed to him.
I have the habit of speaking the truth. I said what I am seeing.
You contested as an ally of the BJP in 2014 in both the assembly and parliamentary elections. So what led you to part ways with them?
In 2014, I had a detailed discussion with then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi about what our movement and organisation expect: restarting the river-linking scheme, giving farmers price for their produce based on the Swaminathan Commission formula and giving independent status for the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. Those were the issues. We were committed to them. They had agreed to implement them soon after coming to power. In his first budget, Arun Jaitley allocated Rs 1,000 crore for the river-linking scheme. I don’t know if they spent or took back the Rs 1000 crore allocated. Not just this, during the UPA government’s tenure, after a long struggle many of us organisations got the land acquisition bill passed.
And they brought a proposal to amend that law. I had opposed it. So, instead of doing something new, they tried to mess with what was going well. That is why we left their alliance.
In response to my first question, you said that the state government’s performance has not been good but just yesterday, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis while releasing the BJP manifesto, said Maharashtra has achieved substantial progress. He cited the NITI Aayog’s index involving agriculture in which Maharashtra has shown improvements and other sectors as well in which the state has done well. So what do you have to say about these assertions?
This is false. Because if that is the case, then why did farmers’ suicides increase in Maharashtra more than before? I agree they were there before as well, but why did they increase? Second thing: why did agriculture growth become negative? Let me speak in his language. Why did share of agriculture in GDP go down? Five years is not a small amount of time, it is sufficient. Something should have been visible during this time. I am not talking about one year’s work but for all five years.
You are talking about giving one crore jobs, but what happened to the 72,000 government jobs you were going to give people? It has been over a year and a half since this announcement of a ‘Mega Recruitment’ was made. There has been a ‘Mega Recruitment’ in the BJP, not the government.
In the BJP’s manifesto which was released yesterday, they have promised 12 hour electricity for farmers, solar power supply—
(Interrupts question) There is nothing in this manifesto. It is like a stale rice and curry (shila bhat, shili kadhi). There is nothing new. They should answer what they did to implement their past promises. In Kolhapur district, about 1,03,000 farmers did not get benefits due to them under the 2017 loan waiver. If these are the numbers for one district, think how many must there be across the state? So what exactly did you do? Peddle lies? And nothing else but the government forced the farmers to be caught in a difficult economic situation.
They were going to start giving new power connections for farming but haven’t given a single new connection in the past five years. If there is no power, how can the farmer get water for his crop? They said business based on farm goods will be set up. Where are they now? Give us the details. While the agitation about milk price increase was going on, the government told co-operatives and private firms to increase milk prices for farmers and it will give them grants. Those grants have still not been given. Who is responsible for this?
What happened to the past promises? What happened to the Rs 34,000 crore loan waiver? It has been two-and-a-half years and yet they have not finished calculating. And, in a way, farmers faced economic restrictions. That is because, despite the government putting strict criteria to limit the number of beneficiaries, there were many whose names did get added to the list of those eligible for relief; and after two-and-a-half years, the government is yet to transfer the money that could clear their dues. Which means the government has not made calculations about the exact amount of relief they will get. That is why such kind of a farmer is in a bind because he doesn’t get a new loan as the previous one hasn’t been cleared yet. The tag of indebtedness is on him.
Second thing is that farmers have not received crop insurance money to the extent they should have. In drought season, they earned a lot of money when you would have expected them to lose money by paying insurance claims to farmers who bought insurance and were grappling with crop losses due to drought. This means the state government failed to regulate the insurance companies. These insurance companies have colluded with agriculture department officials and duped farmers. We filed many such complaints but the government did not take them seriously.
The situation of agriculture and farmers is grim, and Maharashtra has witnessed many protests against this in the recent past with the best known one being the Kisan Long March in which many peasant organisations including your party participated. So why did they vote for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election?
The BJP has been able to manage elections. They manage everything from EVMs to other things. In this scheme of things, all economic ideas are difficult to digest. These questions of farmers are relating to economic ideas. And emotional issues are like opium, they affect easily though not for a long time. The BJP understood this and in the name of nationalism, the way they marketed Balakot and Pulwama... tell me, did only the BJP workers get upset about the Pulwama attacks? The country backed the Balakot strike. All opposition parties supported them. Didn’t they? That is because the question was not about one party or government, it was the country. But they indulged in marketing about it in a way as if the party got it done. The opposition parties got tricked by that marketing and new voters between the age groups 18 and 25 were heavily influenced by it. That is why these daily livelihood issues were sidelined. And that is why the results.
If we look at the BJP campaign for the Maharashtra assembly polls, especially when we look at the manifesto released yesterday, while the party has spoken about Bharat Ratna for Savarkar, it has also promised one crore jobs. So it is also speaking about livelihood issues.
They are still talking about the carrot of promises. You are talking about giving one crore jobs, but what happened to the 72,000 government jobs you were going to give people? It has been over a year and a half since this announcement of a ‘Mega Recruitment’ was made. They should tell what happened to that promise. There has been a ‘Mega Recruitment’ in the BJP, not the government. Second, the way the industrial sector is losing jobs—take what Mahindra and Parle have done. When everybody is sacking people, what has the government done to resolve the woes of the industrial sector as the state government? The first issue that the industrial sector faces is the availability of power and its tariff. In these times of slowdown, did you try to streamline the power tariff for them? After all, during times of slowdown reducing expenses is the only solution, isn’t it?
Second thing is that, after agriculture, textile is the second most intensive job-creating sector. What have you done when the sector is facing so many issues? Today, there is tremendous anxiety felt by textile clusters in Bhiwandi, Malegaon and Solapur. Livelihoods of workers in these clusters have been devastated. What happened to your Make in India and Start Up India?
Answers for these should be given and then promises made in the manifesto.
So you are saying that they should give a report about their performance during the past five years and then speak about what they will do in the next five.
Is the election for Kashmir or Maharashtra? During Vidhan Sabha elections, they should talk about issues being faced by the people of the state about what they will do. Ok, you scrapped 370. Did anyone oppose that? Now, if you scrapped 370 what about 371?
If we look at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches in the state, it is clear that the BJP has made Article 370 an issue in the state elections. And it is believed that the voters like that as well. So, as the opposition party, what is the message and issue that you are taking to the people?
Issue number one: is the election for Kashmir or Maharashtra? During Vidhan Sabha elections, they should talk about issues being faced by the people of the state about what they will do. Ok, you scrapped 370. Did anyone oppose that? Now, if you scrapped 370 what about 371?
About that, the Home Minister Amit Shah has been clear that it won’t be touched. Are you demanding that it should be scrapped as well?
Yes. And the last time, you came to power on the issue of separate statehood for Vidarbha. Why did you leave that issue? This proves that the BJP is not serious about any issue. It only raises issues from which it can get political benefit. It is not at all interested in finding solutions to issues.
We are speaking about issues in Kolhapur and only some months ago, the entire country saw the fury of the flood waters consume the city. But now, looking at the campaign here, it seems as if it is not an issue for the election at all. Why is that the case?
There is outrage. But when does it get visible? Who are the eyes and ears of the society? The news media. In the age of paid news, how can the outrage of the common people come in front of the society? Tell me.
But mass politicians like you are expected to be able to communicate directly with people, isn’t it?
That is being done. But these days, unless the message comes through the media, it does not appear forceful enough.
While members of other parties in the Congress-NCP led alliance are leaving for the BJP and Shiv Sena, in your case the most important defector from your party has returned. What did you do to ensure that?
This movement is based on ideas. Activists who join us know that they will get only happiness and satisfaction about having done something for farmers. All of them are kids of farmers. So while doing that, being part of a movement means, they are short-tempered. So sometimes they get impatient and it is important to talk to them about it. Now, these activists from the movement do not have any fear about agencies like the CBI, ED, IT. Nether are they afraid of the police. Many have charges against them. So they don’t get scared. The opposition capitalised on only one thing they could: short tempers of the activists. We have devised an anti-virus to deal with it. I can just say one thing: their tricks can work with other parties, not Swabhimani Sanghatana.
In 2019, you lost your Lok Sabha seat which you had won twice before and in 2014, when you contested the state election in an alliance with the Shiv Sena-BJP, you did not win a single assembly seat. This time, even though you are in alliance with the Congress-NCP, they have fielded candidates against yours. So why should the voters vote for your candidates and party now?
We are telling the people what happened and telling them why (farmers’) movement is necessary. The movement must survive—that is our tagline. If the movement is finished, then the person who does not get justice from the system, the administration, law is also not sufficient to give him justice, for such a person, the last support system is the movement. Because through the movement, laws and policies can be changed and society gets to introspect on issues it must introspect about. Now, if this movement is finished, then what will happen to the common people? Think about it. And to sustain this movement, protecting the activists working in it is your duty. This is the kind of public awareness we are building among voters.