The defeat of the Ajit Pawar-led panel in a sugar cooperative factory elections could be a politically significant development in Maharashtra politics.
A development that led to whispers, debates and discussions in Maharashtra’s political circles yesterday was about an Ajit Pawar-led panel losing the polls to elect the board of directors to the Malegaon sugar cooperative factory. What’s significant is that the factory is in the Baramati taluka, known to be the Pawar pocket borough. The winner was the Sahakar Bachav panel led by Chandrarao Tawre, a former acolyte of Sharad Pawar. Whether these polls will dent the family’s domination over the powerful sugar lobby is something only time will tell. But for now, the outcome does indicate a shift in politics in the state’s sugar belt.
As compared to state or even municipal elections, this was certainly not a prominent one. But it could be a politically significant outcome and may well foretell the turn of events in state politics. Sugar cooperatives have, for decades, been a catchment area and a grooming ground for local politicians in rural areas, particularly, western Maharashtra. The entire belt from Pune to Kolhapur is a sugar rich area and these cooperatives have been the lifeline of village economy. The first sugar cooperative, probably the first such in the county, was commissioned in 1950 by Vithalrao Vikhe Patil. The purpose was to ensure the farmers got a good price for their cane. It rose as a solution to the plight of sugarcane growers who suffered from landlessness, poor prices and exploitation by private sugar mills. With a large crop, farmers invariably got low prices, making cane farming unviable and exploitative. Vikhe Patil, the father of the sugar cooperative movement, brought together sugarcane growers from various villages in Ahmednagar and launched the first ever sugar cooperative factory. It brought benefits such as good prices, agricultural support and medical and educational facilities to the members.
Over the years, the democratic functioning of these cooperatives got a political twist. With these cooperatives, farmers with larger holdings gained power. Money and muscle power crept into elections to the governing bodies of these factories. The top posts were bagged by the biggest farmers, giving them unrestricted control over the factories’ resources.
With time, these cooperatives became a grooming ground for local farmers who aspired to enter state politics. The key functionaries of these cooperatives fashioned themselves into the messiah of the locals and local political lords. The other farmers then voted for those who ran these factories, spawning a group of politicians who got their power merely from the strength of the cooperatives they ran. Resources to fight elections and fund their parties, too, came from these factories.
Political power and financial muscle saw a decline in the democratic functioning of these cooperatives. A number of politicians reportedly shut down units and then bought them over to create private enterprises. This, over time, led to a simmering anger among farmers who were exploited. This anger was harnessed by popular farmers’ leader Raju Shetti of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatan, an ally of BJP. He brought together sugarcane farmers, led protests, exposed the exploitative politics of local political warlords, explained the economics of sugar production and demanded a better price for farmers. Over time, farmers who were once under the complete control of those who ran the cooperatives found a voice.
This simmering anger and discontent is believed to have cut down the electoral margins of former political strongmen. It is believed that Supriya Sule’s reduced victory margin in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was a pointer to these changing dynamics in rural politics. Sugarcane farmers were set to break free from the shackles of sugar politics. The defeat of the Ajit Pawar-led panel in his own home turf of Baramati could well be a warning sign — that sugar politics can see a transformation in Maharashtra.