Firebrand farmers' leader takes on Pawar's man

The Hatkanangale Lok Sabha constituency in sugarcane-rich western Maharashtra is witnessing an interesting battle between two farmers’ leaders.

Attempting to retain both his seat as well as his hold over the region is the popular educationist Raju Shetti, representing his Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatan, now a BJP-Shiv Sena ally. Pitted against him is Kallappanna Avade, another educationist.

Avade is the Congress-NCP candidate. But the battle in this rural constituency is really being fought between Shetti and Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, who has a vice-like grip over this sugar belt. Pawar even made sure his Nationalist Congress Party’s gave up the seat and played an active role in the Congress picking his friend Avade, a former MP and former state minister. Pawar is going all out against his bitter critic Shetti.

Forty six-year-old Shetti, the sitting MP has been a zilla parishad member and MLA. In 2009 he defeated NCP’s Nivedita Mane, a royal descendent, by over 96,000 votes. With that Shetti threw Pawar a challenge.

Shetti shot to prominence after a long struggle against the very factories Pawar controls, by fighting for better prices for sugarcane farmers. He was also once a partner of Sharad Joshi of Shetkari Sanghatan.

Unlike last time when he contested as an independent, Shetti has allied this time with the BJP-Shiv Sena and is part of a five-party alliance. “I am banking on the total support of the farmers, the middle class in urban areas besides my allies,” Shetti told Deccan Herald at Khumboj, 40 km from Ichalkarankji which is part of the constituency.

As he watched Shetti, who was on a road show, farmer Vikram Pore remarked: “There is no need for Shettiji to come to any of these villages. In any case, we are 100 per cent with him. Without his fight, we would not have got the current sugarcane prices even in another 10 years.”

Ramakant Bise, another farmer at Nej village, agrees with Pore, as echos of whistles (Shetti’s election symbol) reverberate through the air: “Only a few years ago, I used to get Rs 900 per tonne of sugarcane, now I get at least Rs 2200. It was all because of Shetti,” he said.

Still, it is going to be tough for the sitting MP. Pawar has cleverly inserted Avade into the constituency. Avade, who has been away from politics for 10 years, will likely split the nearly 1.5 lakh Jain votes as both the candidates belong to the minority community. Marathas, with over 7 lakh voters, are the biggest chunk of voters, followed by dalits (3 lakh), Lingayats (2 lakh), shepherd community (1 lakh) and others.

Shetti, whom Anna Hazare has supported, exuded confidence about the polls. “Last time, I won as an independent. This time I am sure to increase the margin as the grand alliance is with me,” he said. However, local student Ahmed Ansari provides an interesting twist: “He should know the Muslims won’t be with him!”

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