On the banks of the Panchaganga river in Kolhapur, plastic bags flail in the wind from even the topmost branches of trees, a reminder of how high the waters climbed during the flood that ravaged western Maharashtra in the first and second weeks of August.
In Mumbai, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Shiv Sena alliance strategists are concerned that Kolhapur – which along with Satara and Sangli comprises the sugarcane belt – could be an isolated pocket to challenge their sway. The electoral battle is otherwise seemingly petering into a no-contest on most of the 288-seats of the state.
It’s been over two months since the flood waters receded, and it would seem with it has also receded anger against either the state government, or the BJP-Sena candidates. Of the ten assembly seats in the Kolhapur district, spread between Kolhapur and Hatkanagle Lok Sabha seats, the Sena is contesting eight and BJP two. There is heartburn among local BJP aspirants, and the Sena candidates suspect their ally of sabotage.
Flood victims also complain they are yet to receive the compensation the government promised, but blame the delay on the mess in the cooperative banks. Farmers say they are not getting suitable price for their produce, and shopkeepers say demand has plummeted since there is no money with people.
Most are also keenly aware that the Devendra Fadnavis government did not keep its 2018 promise on farm loan waiver, but they acknowledge they have received at least two instalments of Rs 2,000 each of PM’s Kisan Nidhi scheme.
However, the opposition Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance is struggling to make slowdown an effective election plank, or take advantage of the trust deficit between the BJP-Sena workers. Most blame the slowdown on the floods, and not on any of the policies of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, or the BJP government in the state.
In Prayag Chikhali, a village, 5 kilometres from Kolhapur city, the sugarcane crop stands in fields that are still waterlogged. The crop is now mostly useless. Vilas Patil, a 50-year-old cloth merchant and small farmer, says he is preparing for a tepid Diwali.
“It is less than two weeks to Diwali, but villagers have no money to purchase new clothes. It is all because of the flood,” Patil says, exonerating the state government of any blame. Shiv Sena’s Chandradip Narke is a two-time legislator from Karvir assembly seat.
But wouldn’t the sitting Shiv Sena candidate be in trouble on October 21, the day of polling? “He (Narke) was here all 8 days, standing with us, helping us, arranged a motor boat to ferry goods and people to and from Kolhapur city,” Patil says, adding how none of Narke’s political opponents did even a tenth for their constituents.
The flood waters have left markings that in places are as high as 15 feet from the ground on buildings in villages and towns of Kolhapur. Many residents are yet to return to their homes made unlivable by flood waters.
“But the Sena candidates have worked hard to turn anti-incumbency into pro-incumbency,” Sukhdev Giri, a correspondent for Punyanagari, a Marathi newspaper, says. Kolhapur’s residents see the Sena as the party that stands with the poor, while the Congress, NCP and BJP are of the more affluent.
They attribute the fall of Shetkari Sanghatana farmer leader Raju Shetti, the two time Lok Sabha MP from Hatkanagle, to his siding with the party of “factory owners” – the Congress-NCP, which have traditionally controlled sugar cooperatives. Shetti won the Lok Sabha first in 2009, and then in 2014, as an ally of the BJP-Sena alliance.
In 2019, he allied with the Congress-NCP. His vote share dropped from 53 per cent to 38 per cent, with the Sena wresting the seat. “We supported him as along as he walked on the path of (farmer leader) Sharad Joshi, fought against factory owners, but not anymore,” said a 60-year-old former associate, who did not want to be named.
Chandrakant ‘Dada’ Bacchu Patil is the revenue and public works minister in the Fadnavis government. He is also the guardian minister of Kolhapur. Significantly, he is the state unit chief of the BJP. Over the last five years, he has been responsible for getting Congress-NCP leaders into the BJP fold and capture sugar cooperatives.
With the Sena insisting on contesting eight of the ten seats in the district, the BJP could not deliver on its promises made to these turncoats. As many as five are contesting as independents against the Sena candidates.
Over the past couple of weeks, Bacchu Patil has visited the district several times to oversee relief work and warn rebel BJP candidates of strict disciplinary action. Fadnavis has been to the district twice, and BJP chief Amit Shah conducted an aerial survey during the flood.
Somehow, this repeated connect with the people in this district of Kolhapuri chappals and gur (jaggery), and amid an enveloping economic gloom, the common voter is not yet disillusioned enough to look at political options beyond the Sena-BJP.