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Advantage BJP in Maharashtra poll, as it usurps cooperative sector reins from Congress-NCP

Radheshyam Jadhav | Updated on October 21, 2019 Published on October 21, 2019

File picture of NCP chief Sharad Pawar addressing an election rally in support of Congress-NCP candidate Vijay Ghormade, near Nagpur earlier this month.   -  PTI

Cooperatives have played a key role in creating a set of socio-economic institutions in the State. Earlier controlled by NCP and Congress, the BJP has co-opted the cooperative sector leadership and given them tickets

For the first time the BJP is hoping to win an absolute majority in the Maharashtra State Assembly, as the State goes to polls today.

The party is banking on a conglomeration of winning leaders it has managed to prop up ahead of State elections, by importing Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders into its fold. Cooperative and education baron Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil is one of them. The BJP would expect him to engineer a win in all 12 seats in Ahmednagar district for the party; meanwhile, Radhakrishna has vouched to uproot the Congress from his district.

Former Congress leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, who is now with the BJP.   -  th

 

The Vikhe-Patil clan

Radhakrishna’s grandfather Vitthalrao Vikhe-Patil is credited with starting the first cooperative sugar mill in Asia. He organised farmers in Pravanagar area in Ahmednagar district way back in 1948 and established a co-operative sugar factory, which was commissioned in 1950. Vitthalrao then started an education society in the region. Vitthalrao’s son Balasaheb took over the mantle from his father and built a cooperative empire. Balasaheb was MLA, MP and minister in State and Centre.

For over 40 years, he held power positions in the Congress and then joined the Shiv Sena. Balasaheb was the ‘party’ for his followers in Ahmednagar. After Balasaheb’s death, his son Radhakrishna became the face of Congress in the district; till recently he was the Leader of the Opposition in the State assembly attacking the BJP and Shiv Sena government. His son Sujay wanted to contest 2019 Lok Sabha election from Ahmednagar as a Congress candidate, but the seat went to the NCP in a seat-sharing formula between the two parties; father and son left the Congress, and the BJP welcomed both of them with open arms.

In fact, the BJP denied a party nomination to three-time sitting MP and party loyalist Dilip Gandhi and nominated Sujay as its candidate. Sujay won the May election and the father who was the Leader of the Opposition for more than four-and-half years joined the State government as a cabinet minister. Shalini Vikhe-Patil, wife of Radhakrishna and mother of Sujay, is president, Ahmednagar Zilla Parishad. Therefore, all key positions in Ahmednagar politics are with the family. Vikhe-Patils control cooperative societies, federations, market committees, cooperative banks, and also vote banks.

Instead of directly strengthening its base in the sugar-rich district, the BJP opted for co-option – handing over its ‘lotus’ to the powerful Vikhe-Patils, in the process sidelining its own leaders who fought the family to create the BJP’s base in the region. The fourth generation of Vikhe-Patils is now busy multiplying their cooperative kingdom with BJP’s support.

It is not just Vikhe-Patils in Ahmednagar. There are many cooperative barons who have shifted their loyalties to the BJP ahead of assembly elections. The Patils in Sangli, Pune and Osmanabad have draped themselves in saffron, along with the Mahadiks in Kolhapur, Bhosales in Satara, Pichads in Ahmednagar, Kshirsagars in Beed and Naiks in Thane.

The cursory look at the list of candidates for today’s assembly elections reveals that more than 100 sugar barons are in the fray. Most of them are contesting as BJP and Shiv Sena candidates this time, instead of Congress-NCP candidates.

Dominating through cooperation

The co-operative movement in Maharashtra is a truly complex phenomenon that has contributed to the socio-economic and political development of the State. Initially confined to agricultural credit, the cooperative movement today has spread into agro-processing, marketing, housing, dairy, storage, textile, finance, fishery and industries. As on March 31, 2018, there were about 1.98 lakh co-operative societies in the State.

 

More than half of the 11.24 crore population in Maharashtra lives in rural areas, and the cooperative movement is a lifeline for the rural masses. Agricultural credit co-operative banks have three-tier structure. The Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank is the Apex body, the District Central Co-operative Banks are working at district level and Primary Agricultural Credit Societies (PACS) at village level.

Short term agricultural credit for seasonal agricultural operations is provided by 21,000 PACS. Sugar factories, cotton ginning and pressing, spinning mills, handloom and powerloom, dairy, fisheries, rice mills, oil mills and other processing units are constituents of agro-processing co-operative societies.

During 2018-19, a crop loan of ₹31,282 crore and agricultural term loans of an amount of ₹36,632 crore was disbursed through this network. During 2017-18, primary agricultural credit co-operative societies disbursed loans of ₹14,573 crore to farmers. During 2018-19, the annual target for agriculture and allied activities sector in the annual credit plan is ₹85,464 crore.

Sugarcane farming is the source of livelihood for nearly 2.5 crore people living in rural Maharashtra. The sugarcane industry provides direct employment to about 1,65,000 workers, besides eight lakh workers who are engaged in harvesting and transport operations every year for six months. The amount of money that flows through the cooperative network makes it the most vital link between rural economy and its politics.

The proliferation of the cooperative movement in Maharashtra has its links with the Green Revolution. The International Food Policy Research Institute in its document on Green Revolution has criticised the Green Revolution. “Critics of the Green Revolution argued that owners of large farms were the main adopters of the new technologies because of their better access to irrigation water, fertilizers, seeds, and credit. Small farmers were either unaffected or harmed because the Green Revolution resulted in lower product prices, higher input prices, and efforts by landlords to increase rents or force tenants off the land,” the document observes.

In Maharashtra, it was pretty obvious that some families in the dominant Maratha community reaped the benefits of the new technology. They had huge tracts of lands, and with new technology within their reach they enhanced their assets.

File pic of the former Maharashtra chief minister Vasantdada Patil casting his vote in Assembly elections in 1978. Photo: The Hindu Archives   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

The Maratha leadership in Maharashtra including State’s first Chief Minister Yashwantrao Chavan and other two Chief Ministers, the late Vasantdada Patil and Sharad Pawar, played a major role in strengthening the cooperative movement in the State. It was not at all surprising that dominant Maratha families which presided over the rural socio-economic landscape emerged as cooperative leaders. Other land holding communities like Jains in the sugar belt of Sangli validated the Maratha leadership and partook of the benefits of cooperative movements.

The Brahmin community, generally a solid committed vote bank of the BJP, migrated to the cities following attacks on them after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder and focused on education and business sector. The Kunabi Marathas (farmer Marathas), and majority of Other Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes with little or no land holding remained completely dependent on the agriculture and cooperative sector for their survival in rural areas. They became vote banks of the cooperative barons.

 

“There is a pattern and hierarchy in cooperative politics. The big barons don’t directly connect to the masses. They give power to their lieutenants who control daily operations at the village and taluka levels. The life of a farmer is knotted with cooperative sector in rural areas. Credit, water supply, government schemes and benefits come through cooperative barons and their men and farmers have to remain loyal to them,” says agriculture expert Ramesh Chille.

He added that a sugar cooperative is one of the major power centres in the State economy. Politicos controlling sugar industries ensure that the farmers remain dependent on them for everything. “Even slight dissent by farmers will have consequences. His sugarcane will not be lifted for crushing, his loan proposals in the district central banks will be blocked, water to his field will be cut,” adds Chille.

A sugarcane farmer in Osmanabad echoes Chille. “I just questioned the local leader on sugarcane FRP and he communicated it to his boss who controls sugar mill. Water supply to my cane field was snapped and my sugarcane was not taken for crushing till I tendered an apology,” the farmer said requesting anonymity.

Cooperative Corruption

Sugar mills in Maharashtra have been the lifeline of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party’s politics. Before Maharashtra State was established, the then Bombay State government offered a share capital of ₹10 lakh to establish sugar factories through setting up cooperative societies. Later the State contributed up to three-fourths of share capital in cooperative mills and offered guarantees for loans. After 2002, the government stopped assistance. But by then sugar mills had came up across the State and regional leaders had established themselves as satraps. Massive subsidies, high returns and support from financial institutions and the State attracted regional satraps to sugar mills.

Private mills on the rise

During its 15 years regime (1999- 2014) the Congress and NCP promoted private sugar mills. As the result, in the 2018-19 crushing season out of 195 operational mills in the State 92 mills were privately owned. The Congress and NCP controlled Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank (MSCB), started attaching assets of defaulting sugar mills by auctioning them to private players. Those who bid as buyers were politicos across party lines.

“It is surprising that cooperative sugar mills that were doing poorly suddenly started showing fantastic performance after purchased by politicians,” says Sanjay Chavan who cultivates sugarcane in Kolhapur.

Today, the investigation agencies have started probing alleged unsecured loans to sugar mills by the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank. The sale of cooperative sugar mills is also being probed. The Enforcement Directorate has registered a money laundering case purportedly involving NCP chief Sharad Pawar and about 70 former functionaries of the MSCB to probe an alleged ₹25,000-crore scam.

But it is not just NCP and Congress leaders who are under the probe radar. BJP and Shiv Sena leaders are also under the radar.

NCP President Sharad Pawar who led the State’s cooperative sector for more than 50 years, in an interview to a vernacular media said that many of his lieutenants have joined the ruling party fearing probe of their cooperative institutions. Pawar claimed that a senior party leader showed him the inquiry notice and said that it was the only reason he was joining the BJP. During his election rallies across the State, Pawar reminded the rural masses that the cooperative movement had brought prosperity to farmers.

Interestingly, the BJP and Shiv Sena leaders have taken less interest in the cooperative sector in rural areas probably their base has been largely concentrated in urban areas. Except for few leaders such as Nitin Gadkari and the late Gopinath Munde no major BJP leader has set up a cooperative network in his constituency.

“It is a fact that the cooperative movement has changed lives of the rural masses but at the same time it is also true that leaders across party lines want to use cooperative sector as a tool for politics, ” says activist Sampatrao Pawar who added that farmers need to take the reins of the cooperative movement and oppose its politicisation.

“ The success of co-operative movement depends much less on the growth of the number of societies than on the moral basis of the shareholders” the MSCB website quotes Mahatma Gandhi. The probe of MSCB directors and the outcome might have a long term impact in State’s cooperative structures and politics.

The Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar recently stated that agriculture was the backbone of India, and the cooperative movement, the soul of India. However, many of the those accused of unsettling the ‘ soul’ of India and are under scanner have joined the BJP. Others might follow their steps if the BJP bounces back to power in Maharashtra.

Published on October 21, 2019
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