Maharashtra polls become bitter for Congress, NCP as sugar barons have switched to BJP

Maharashtra polls become bitter for Congress, NCP as sugar barons have switched to BJP

Most of the rich and powerful sugar cooperative owners of Maharashtra have abandoned their decades-old patrons in droves to join BJP, leaving Congress-NCP jittery.

NCP chief Sharad Pawar during nomination filing procession of the party candidate from Mumbra Jintendra Awhad for the upcoming Maharashtra Assembly elections. | PTI

NCP chief Sharad Pawar during nomination filing procession of the party candidate from Mumbra Jintendra Awhad for the upcoming Maharashtra Assembly elections. | PTI

Mumbai/Pune: The rich and the powerful of Maharashtra politics — sugar barons and owners and patrons of engineering and medical colleges — appear set to queer the pitch for the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), their former benefactors, in the October 21 Maharashtra elections.

These barons had abandoned their decades-old patrons in droves to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of and after the last Lok Sabha elections — long before the Enforcement Directorate (ED) registered a case against NCP chief Sharad Pawar in the alleged Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam last month.

Congress and NCP leaders are now wringing their hands in despair as their former proteges threaten to spoil their electoral prospects, especially in western Maharashtra — a geographical region comprising Pune, Satara, Sangli, Solapur, Kolhapur and Ahmednagar districts. These districts send 70 MLAs to the 288-member state assembly.

Congress can only blame itself & ally NCP 

For instance, Prithviraj Chavan, the former Maharastra chief minister, has a sugar baron as his main rival in Karad South constituency — Atul Suresh Bhosle of the BJP — and the contest is expected to be tough.

The former CM has only his Congress colleagues and ally NCP to blame for this situation.

Barely 48 hours after becoming the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in 2013, Raghuram Rajan had called on Chavan to alert him about financial irregularities in Maharashtra’s cooperative sector, those privy to the deliberations then have told ThePrint.

Rajan had reportedly expressed strong reservations against dual control of cooperative banks — by the RBI and the state government. He was also learnt to have flagged concerns about irregularities in the banks’ bookkeeping. Chavan concurred with him but could do little as ally NCP and also his ‘bosses’ in the Congress did not want any “interference” in cooperatives, a Congress leader close to the former CM confided in ThePrint.

If Chavan, or the Congress-NCP alliance, had “fixed” the cooperative sector and its barons, their clout would possibly have been clipped and they wouldn’t be posing the electoral headache they currently are.

Sample this. In 2011, the RBI had dissolved the board of directors of the apex body, Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, which included many politicians, and appointed administrators to run it. The bank that was in the red soon started making a turnaround.

Had he got political support, Chavan could have initiated a similar clean-up process in smaller cooperative units.

Also read: Congress-NCP manifesto promises jobs for Maharashtra residents, preservation of Marathi

Sugar cooperatives and Maharashtra politics

There are about 2.27 lakh cooperatives in Maharashtra and most of them had enjoyed the patronage of the Congress since the 1960s, and later of the Pawar-led NCP.

The 2019 assembly elections are, however, marked by massive defections by the cooperative barons to the BJP camp. These cooperatives wield a great influence on Maharashtra’s socio-economy and politics.

Chavan’s former deputy, Ajit Pawar, is facing Gopichand Padalkar of the BJP, but the NCP is worried about the role of Ranjankumar Tawde, the man who outmanoeuvred the Pawars to become the chairman of an influential sugar cooperative in Baramati, the Malegaon Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana Ltd.

Shivendraraje Bhosale, a descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji and another sugar baron, switched his loyalty from the NCP to become the BJP candidate from Satara-Jawli, an NCP stronghold.

Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, called a cooperative czar, had been the leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra assembly for almost its entire tenure from 2014. He switched sides to join the BJP right before the Lok Sabha elections and is now contesting from his traditional Shirdi seat.

The list of such turncoats is long.

Why this exodus?

In an interview recently, Swabhimani Paksha leader Raju Shetty, a well-known campaigner for farmers’ causes, said all 23 owners of sugar factories in Kolhapur, barring two, have either joined the BJP or “established ties” with it.

The story is no different in other districts.

Of the nearly 20 outgoing Congress and NCP legislators who have joined the BJP, most have interests in sugar or milk cooperatives or engineering or medical colleges. So, why are the rich and the powerful of Maharashtra rushing to join the BJP?

As Congress leaders sarcastically say, these sugar barons didn’t wake up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mass appeal or grand vision for the country one fine morning. Nor did they suddenly discover Sonia Gandhi’s or Rahul’s or Sharad Pawar’s politics as loathsome.

Their newly found love for the BJP had its genesis in the way cooperatives were feeding politics in Maharashtra. A powerful functionary in the then Congress-NCP government said cooperatives always had the patronage of politicians.

“You needed just 5 per cent of the capital to start a cooperative unit. The remaining was given by the government. The permission to open a cooperative unit virtually came directly from the chief minister,” he said.

As a result, it was an MLA, a party worker or someone with political backing who got to run these cooperatives.

“You dipped into the cooperatives’ accounts during elections. So, there are readymade paper trails to nail all these barons,” said the leader.

And this somewhat explains their desperation to be on the side of the party in power.

The cooperatives also come handy when it comes to distributing largesse to farmers.

Malegaon sugar cooperative chairman Ranjankumar Tawde told ThePrint in Baramati that after he took over, his cooperative had been giving more FRP (fair and remunerative price) for sugarcane to farmers than any cooperatives run by the Pawars.

“Farmers now see where their interests lie,” said Tawde, a BJP leader.

There was a time when the Congress and the NCP dominated the politics in western Maharashtra. ‘Modi wave’ first created chinks in their support base in the 2014 assembly elections. The two parties, which had won 38 seats in 2009 elections, got reduced to 29 in the 2014 elections, while the BJP tally went up to 24 from 11.

The exodus of those helming the cooperatives in the run-up to the 2019 elections is now giving jitters to the Congress and the NCP.

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