Of Marx, Modi and morphine in Mandsaur

A photo of opium farm in Mandsaur (File photo)

Religion is the opiate of the masses, goes the famous quote of German philosopher Karl Marx. Religion, opium and politics are intertwined in the opium belt of Mandsore-Neemuch, a stronghold of the RSS-BJP that goes to the polls in the last phase on May 19.

During every election, politicians rush in to assure farmers that they will relax conditions for opium licenses. Even Doda Choora (poppy husk) becomes a focal point as the election gains momentum.

Unhappy with pricing for the opium produce of Mandsaru that produces the best morphine (used in painkillers), opium farmer Amrit Ram Patidar and farmer leader Amrit Ram Meena say that politicians make big promises to give relief to farmers during every election but nothing happens. Regarding the farmer agitation on June 6, 2017, which led to the deaths of six people in a police shooting, the pricing of produce was an issue and included fruits, milk and vegetables.


2017 farmer agitation in Mandsaur
in which six farmers were killed (File photo)

Mandsaur farmers have held agitations seeking the removal of certain restrictions on opium farming at Jantar Mantar and had submitted a memorandum to then Minister of State for Finance Nirmala Sitharaman.

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, sitting BJP MP Sudhir Gupta had helped farmers get some relief on the strict conditions on the morphine margin of produce. Congress candidate Meenakshi Natarajan is assuring villagers that she will ensure that the poppy husk (Doda Choora) of Mandsaur farmers are not burned as decided by the state government but purchased.

Opium is only one of the causes of farmer distress. A visit to Pipaliya Mandi, where thousands of farmers gather daily, gives the impression that people have moved beyond the shooting incident and are more concerned about issues of irrigation and proper pricing for crops.

Opinions are divided on who will win the seat. The air is dull as the election seems to be only focused on Modi or 'No Modi'.

While there is appreciation for the prime minister’s post-Pulwama actions, the Congress is also gaining strength.  

Shailendra, B.Com final student from Barkhera Pant, whose villagers were among those killed in the police firing, says, “The Shivraj Chouhan Singh government gave compensation. There is a Modi wave here. BJP will win the seat.” He concedes that employment is a huge problem in the region.

Last year, Rahul Gandhi accused Prime Minister Modi of allowing Chinese goods to flood Indian markets and had said in Mandsaur that he wants a mobile phone with a 'Made in Mandsaur tag'. Latching on the remark, Modi repeatedly targeted the Congress president in an Indore rally last week.


Rahul Gandhi addressing an election rally in
Neemuch with Congress candidate Meenakshi Natarajan 

Meenakashi, an MSc in Bio Chemistry is contesting from the seat for the Congress party for the third time and is pitted against a quintessential RSS man Gupta of the BJP, the sitting MP who has done a Masters in Commerce.

BJP Chief Amit Shah and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouan have held meetings to support Gupta, an accessible local face while Congress President Rahul Gandhi held a rally to back close aide Natarajan, known for her austere lifestyle.

Chief Minister Kamal Nath faces an acid test as elections are happening in the state just months after the Assembly elections, which propelled the Congress to power in the state and he is repeatedly trying to counter the BJP’s allegation that the Congress government did not waive farm loans as promised by Rahul Gandhi.

Some have got compensation but many have not. This situation could play spoilsport for the Congress party.

While the candidates slug it out on the ground braving the scorching sun in the region bordering the Rajasthan border, there is a visible Modi undercurrent if not wave even in the rural pockets.

There is no 2014-like enthusiasm to defeat the Congress in the region, nor is there any 2009 like fatigue factor against the nine-term MP (six terms consecutively) Laxminarayan Pandey of the BJP whose defeat gave Natarajan the sobriquet of 'giant killer' and got her into the decision-making team of Rahul Gandhi.

Since 1951, the Congress has won this seat five times -- last in 2009 after 1984, the BJP or the Jan Sangh won it 10 times and the Lok Dal once. When Natarajan won the seat defeating the BJP’s Pandey, the margin of victory was 30,000. When she lost to the BJP’s Gupta in 2014, the margin was more than 300,000 votes.


2017 farmer agitation had taken place near Pipaliya village

The Congress’ hopes have soared this time as in the total vote count in eight Assembly segments (seven won by the BJP and one by the Congress) in the state Assembly polls, the Congress got only 70,000 fewer votes than the BJP.

In most of the seats, the BJP won by a margin of a few thousand votes while the Congress won the lone seat of Suvasara with a razor-thin margin of 350 votes. The BJP won the Javara seat with just 551 votes. In another Assembly seat Garoth, the Congress lost with 1,108 votes.

The  Congress has focused on areas where it lost with thin margins, while the BJP supporters believe that the state poll results will not play out as the people are electing a "strong" leader at the Centre. In his rallies, Rahul Gandhi is trying to revive the memory of the June 2017 police firing in Mandsaur in which six farmers were killed.

The BJP workers feel that the issue has died down after the then Shivraj Singh Chouhan government stepped in to address the woes with huge compensations and schemes like the Bhavantar Yojana to give remunerative prices to farmers.

Aware of this, Gupta in his street campaigns has dished out nationalism. Uri, Pulwama and Balakot are the BJP’s campaign themes.

Congress candidate Natarajan enjoys a clean image but does not attend to the issues of the local people. “See, this is an opium belt. The local MP is approached for all and sundry works, including making a call to the police officer. Natarajan does not entertain these things,” says a local.

The BJP is also battling some internal dissension with some local leaders not campaigning for the candidate.

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