KOLHAPUR, Maharashtra — On October 16, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the thick of his intensive election campaign schedule in Maharashtra. It was the last week of the campaign and Modi addressed three big rallies that day for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates across as many locations, but it was what he said in his speech at Akola that caught the most attention.
Responding sharply to criticism made by veteran Maharashtra politician Sharad Pawar the previous day, Modi said, “A shameless opposition is asking what is the connection between Article 370 and Maharashtra. We are proud of the children of Maharashtra who sacrificed everything for Jammu and Kashmir. How can they say that Jammu and Kashmir has nothing to do with Maharashtra? They should be ashamed of such thoughts. Don’t they have any shame? Doob Maro (Go Drown).”
Pawar had pointed out while speaking at a public meeting the day before that when people “question them about farmer suicides, unemployment, closure of industries, the BJP replies Article 370”. He reacted to Modi’s October 16 speech, and then the PM followed up with some more rhetorical statements.
This instance of a war of words between Pawar and Modi is an example of how the top leadership of the BJP ensured that Article 370 and Kashmir remained the biggest talking points during the recently concluded Maharashtra election campaign. A closer look at public speeches by other BJP leaders, including Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, around the same time shows how well-coordinated the effort was.
That it had its effect was clear when even Pawar, the most effective campaigner from among the opposition parties, was forced to respond to the ruling party on its poll plank instead of mounting a challenge with any other issue of his choosing.
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The BJP’s success in ensuring that one of the key demands of the Sangh Parivar’s long-term ideological project—abrogation of Article 370—became the most important election issue in a big state poll not only shows its domination of political discourse in the country and the kind of party it has become today, it also reveals how and why national issues came to dominate over the issues and concerns specific to the voters of Maharashtra.
The state is voting to choose its new government on Monday, and the Fadnavis-led BJP is widely expected to make a comeback.
National focus everywhere
According to pollster and political analyst Rajeshwari Deshpande of Savitribai Phule Pune University, this was not unexpected, given the kind of politics and political party system that the BJP was pursuing nationally under Modi and Shah during the last five years.
“At one level you see the campaign dominated by national issues—that campaign was mainly led by national-level leaders—that’s the kind of politics that the BJP has been doing in several states over the past five years because of a certain kind of party system that is emerging under the BJP’s leadership,” she said.
In a country like India, where each state has its own particular problems and concerns, assembly elections are the time when voters can make sure their representatives are answerable for the promises they made five years ago. It is often local issues that dominate the discourse in the run-up to voting. In Maharashtra, there has been a clear deviation from that course.
Deshpande points out that, like during Indira Gandhi’s period, there is a definite centralisation of the party system, and hence the agenda is also driven by central issues.
“Election campaign is also centralised to that extent and national issues become the campaign issues in the state-level election,” she said.
But she qualified this observation by saying that, “at the same time, in each state, local issues and the local configuration of politics also matter in every assembly election.”
When HuffPost India visited Kolhapur district in Western Maharashtra to understand the extent to which local issues figured during the assembly election campaign, many voters said issues that really mattered to them were either underplayed, or ignored entirely during the poll campaign by political parties.
While many national commentators have described the Maharashtra election as ‘issueless’ the ground reality is different. When HuffPost India visited Kolhapur district in Western Maharashtra to understand the extent to which local issues that affected the day-to-day lives of voters figured during the assembly election campaign, many voters said issues that really mattered to them were either underplayed, or ignored entirely during the poll campaign by political parties.
The flood that swamped Kolhapur and Sangli districts in August was the common strand that bound the issues mentioned by voters. People spoke of complete neglect of their plight by the administration and said no political party had asked them about their concerns and promised any relief, even though finding a resolution to these issues will be the responsibility of the next state government that is formed in the near future.
Kolhapur had briefly grabbed headlines in early August after unprecedented floods ravaged large parts of the district and the historic city. At the time, despite serious social and economic consequences for people, news media and government attention towards floods in Kolhapur and neighbouring Sangli district was short-lived as it came to be immediately eclipsed by the Modi government’s decision on August 5 to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and abrogate Article 370.
No one’s buying Kolhapuri chappals
The Shivaji Market in Kolhapur city is known for being home to a variety of designs of the globally renowned Kolhapuri Chappal in the many small footwear shops that comprise the historic market.
Some local shopkeepers claim the market was set up during the rule of the widely respected reformer king Chattrapati Shahu Maharaj, who was known for being compassionate towards the oppressed castes. The chappal business, local shopkeepers at the market told this reporter, is almost entirely run by people from the cobbler community.
The uniqueness of the chappals made in Kolhapur, and in some nearby districts of Maharashtra and Karnataka, can be understood by the fact that this year they were granted the Geographical Indication (GI) tag by the Comptroller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks. What this means is that the make of footwear produced in these handful districts, including Kolhapur, is so unique that it has been granted the sole right to be sold as Kolhapuri.
When this reporter visited the market one weekday October evening, most footwear shops wore an empty look and were devoid of customers. The usual decoration of shop fronts before and during the festive season of Dussehra and Diwali was also missing.
Dattatray Arale, an employee at the ‘New Utsav’ footwear shop, said their “entire business has been hit due to floods” this year. He estimated that business may be down by at least half and that was the reason why no shop in the market had put up any Diwali or Dussehra related decorations.
But how did the flood—which hit the city in August—continue to have an impact on their business even two months later? Arale explained that a major part of business during festive season comes from devotees of the goddess Mahalaxmi in Maharashtra and elsewhere who visit her temple, which is located right behind the Shivaji Market. Then there are tourists who visit from across India and also other parts of the world.
“Because of the drought and the still continuing monsoon, there have been almost no tourists this year. Some months ago, the price of leather also increased. So our sales are affected because of both these factors this year,” he said.
The few customers that do come seek to drive a good bargain, knowing it is lean season this year. Vishal Powar, who runs ‘Vishal Enterprises’, a small footwear ship in the same market, was arguing actively with Raju Matale when this reporter met them.
“There is the shadow of economic slowdown (“mandiche saawat”) that has affected us as well. We were already selling in lesser numbers in March and April, the floods just made things worse,”Vishal Powar, who runs ‘Vishal Enterprises’, a small footwear ship in Shivaji market.
A construction contractor from Pune, Matale makes an annual pilgrimage to Tirupati Balaji and Kolhapur’s Mahalaxmi temple. This year, he delayed his visit since the city was flooded in August. “Unlike the usual hour-long queue, I only had to wait for about 15 minutes this year,’’ he said, indicating just how significant the drop is in the number of devotees who visited the temple this year.
Powar and Matale eventually settled on Rs 750 as the selling price for the Rs 1,000 kolhapuri chappal for men. “Business has been bad this year and there are few people visiting the temple so I have to give discounts. Often, the first sale of the day happens at around 4-5 pm though we are open for business in the morning. I make around Rs 1,500-2,000 every day in this season. That is less than half of what I would make at this time of the year,” said Powar.
However, it is not just the floods that have hit business this time. In his reckoning, the economic slowdown is also a factor. “There is the shadow of economic slowdown (“mandiche saawat”) that has affected us as well. We were already selling in lesser numbers in March and April, the floods just made things worse,” the 32-year-old said.
When asked if any political leader or party contesting the election had raised this or any other issues relating to his business during the election campaign, Powar said, “There is no one left to look after the Charmakar Bandhavs (cobbler brothers).”
Waiting for help
Nandni is a village of about 5,000 families about two hours from Kolhapur city. Most landed farmers here are from the Jain community and they cultivate sugarcane. There are also relatively smaller number of Dalits from different sub-castes who don’t own land and work as agricultural labourers on farms.
Forty-year-old Shobha Kondiba Chougule, who was born into the Matang caste, is one such worker. On August 6, her small house in which she stayed with her son was submerged in the floods. She was rescued by helpful villagers and the local administration put her in the village school till water receded from her home. She got Rs 11,000 in two installments from the government and 10 kg each of rice and wheat as help.
But that money and food was just about able to meet her and her son’s basic necessities for a few days. Her house, which was destroyed in the flood, remains in ruins and she has had to rent a small house from a benevolent neighbour, who has thus far not asked her to pay up. But she can’t live without paying indefinitely. Her son, 19-year-old Vaibhav Kondiba Chougule, is a sewer cleaning worker in local government and is paid Rs 4,000 per month. He may be asked to pay Rs1,000 rent for the small room. Being a widow, she said, it was her responsibility to manage the house. Since she is a farmhand, she herself makes only Rs 150 on a day when she finds work and that is why it is unviable for her to rent her current accommodation for long.
When asked if any political party or leader during the election campaign came forward to offer or promise to help, she said, “No one visited us. My only request to you is help me rebuild my house.”
She is by no means the lone person from the Dalit community in her village in this predicament. Amar Appaso Ghare (36) and his family are staying with five other families in a Buddha temple in the village. “The walls of our house are swollen due to flood water. They could come down anytime. That is why, on August 6 when the water entered weakened my house walls and had entered even this temple, I came here, cleaned up the floor and got others to shift here as well after water receded from the village schools where everybody had camped when water levels were high had to be restarted for students,” he said. Amar also said that the families have only received Rs 11,000 thus far, though he had heard that they were to receive Rs 94,000 for rebuilding their houses. It had not materialised until the time of the meeting.
Navsabai Tagare, one of the other residents of the Buddha temple was also, like them, born into the Mahar community which has a tradition of adopting Buddhism as its religion after Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar initiated the movement for conversion.
Speaking with HuffPost India on a rainy October evening, Tagare said that she had not received any meaningful help. Though no one had come to seek their votes, she was planning to vote for the candidate of the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. Why?
“He is our man,” she said, implying that the VBA candidate belongs to the same Dalit caste as her. Other residents of the temple would not disclose their voting preference.
Interestingly, Tagare resides in the village which is part of the constituency of the Shiv Sena MLA, Ulhas Patil, who had warned the Fadnavis administration of the impending floods and later criticised it for its failure to respond to the flood on time.
Even the much better-off landed community of Jains in the village is yet to overcome the hit they took after being hit by floods.
Dilip Devgonda Patil is a medium farmer with 4.5 acre land in his own possession. His brother also has the same amount of land in his possession. Both cultivate sugarcane together on it. The floods damaged a major portion of their crop, which was barely two months away from being harvested by the sugarcane mills at the time of the flood. “About 500 tonnes of sugar in my crop has likely been affected by the floodwater,” he said. The fifty-six-year-old estimated that he may have lost about Rs 3.5 lakh because of the crop damage.
When he met this reporter in mid-October, Patil’s sugarcane crop was yet to be harvested or cut off. He wanted to see how much of the crop, if any, could be salvaged and sold. But if there was anything he was certain of, it was that he hadn’t got any significant help from the administration and that a large portion of his crop was going to be wasted.
“Far from receiving any help, I will have to spend money from my own pocket to clear the damaged crop from my land if the sugar mill does not buy any portion of it,” he said. Clearly, he was staring at a precarious future as well.
Patil also said that he had not heard any political party raise issues of the farmers in the aftermath of the floods during the election in any serious way.
Where’s the outrage?
A whole cross-section of people affected by the flood in different ways are still dealing with its consequences. And even though the state is voting in the assembly election, they feel neglected and fearful for the future. While part of the reason is surely the BJP making Article 370 and Kashmir the dominant talking points of the election, there are other, more familiar factors as well.
Mahavir Patil, a political activist and resident of Nandni village, said, caste will be a very important factor in voting preferences despite the ravages caused by the flood. “During the flood, people helped each other. We overcame the immediate problems caused by the rise in water levels in the village without any significant government help. But caste-based voting, across all castes, has always been there. So it cannot be wished away this time around,” he said.
As Deshpande, quoted earlier in this report, said, “local factors” and “local configurations” also matter in the state assembly election.
Speaking about the opposition’s inability to channelise public outrage to the ballot box and build perception against the government, Shetti said, “Those who are doing, their strength is not enough and those who must do it aren’t up to the task.”
A pollster who surveyed voters’ opinion in April-May during the time of the Lok Sabha election believes there is another factor that prevented any other issues from dominating the assembly election and ensured the momentum remained in favour of the BJP: absence of anti-incumbency.
Pollster and political analyst Prof. Nitin Vishwanath Birmal, who participated in the pre-poll survey of the CSDS during the Lok Sabha election, believes that “even if people are not positively in favour of the Fadnavis government, they are not against it”. This was true, he felt, during the months of April-May and continues to be true even in October notwithstanding the obvious problems caused by floods, joblessness, agrarian distress and other such issues.
There may be some truth to that. Priya Bhosale, an upper-middle-class homemaker and resident of Kolhapur city, told HuffPost India in an interview that the Fadnavis government means well and has not done anything wrong. “I feel this government should be given a second chance,” she said. However, she also said that she was aware that nothing has been done for Kolhapur city: “My kids will have to go to Pune or Bangalore for IT jobs and can’t stay here if they want good jobs as job opportunities are not there and the city has not really been developed.”
Bhosale’s statement also indicates failure on the part of the opposition to whip up any outrage around the material issues that affect people’s lives.
Raju Shetti, former MP and leader of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna, which is contesting on five seats in an alliance with the Congress, conceded as much in an interview with HuffPost India. Speaking about the opposition’s inability to channelise public outrage to the ballot box and build perception against the government, Shetti said, “Those who are doing, their strength is not enough and those who must do it aren’t up to the task.”
However, Satej Patil, former state government minister and Kolhapur district President of the Congress, put the blame on the ruling alliance. “Issues like damages to the sugarcane crop after floods in Western Maharashtra, crop damage in Marathwada due to untimely rains, farmer suicides, joblessness—these issues do not get discussed because the BJP is using Article 370 and Kashmir as a diversion from the real issues which affect the people of the state,” he said.
On his part, Chief Spokesperson of BJP Maharashtra Madhav Bhandari refuted this assertion. “Our Sankalp Patra (manifesto) is a 40-page document. There is no mention of Article 370 in it. It contains the roadmap for economic development, infrastructure, social security so this narrative that you people are creating is because of your vested interests. 99 per cent of BJP’s campaign has been about development issues. About the work that our government did during the past five years,” he said.