The Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana has joined the saffron alliance in Maharashtra. Will the votes it brings to the table loosen the political hold of the Maratha-dominated sugar barons of the NCP-Congress in western Maharashtra?
Neeta Kolhatkar checks out what the Sanghatana's presence in the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance means for Maharashtra politics.
While the Aam Aadmi Party wave seems to be taking Delhi and northern India by storm, interesting developments have occurred in western Maharashtra.
Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana President Raju Shetty, left, joined the saffron alliance -- Maha Yuti -- in Maharashtra consisting of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Shiv Sena and Republican Party of India (Ramdas Athavale group).
The pre-election alliance may directly impact the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in the state.
Shetty took a calculated risk by not joining the AAP. It can only pay off if a BJP-led government comes to power at the Centre.
A Lok Sabha MP, Shetty is the only leader of his group with a hold over farmers or any political experience.
Once a protege of Shetkari Sanghatana leader Sharad Joshi, Shetty parted with his mentor in 2004 and set up the SSS.
He concentrated on taking up the cause of dairy and sugar farmers. His arch rivals are the sugar barons of western Maharashtra, mainly Marathas from the NCP and the Congress.
Shetty led often violent protests, fighting for the rights of farmers and agricultural workers. Western Maharashtra has good irrigated land and is economically well-to-do, with thriving dairy and sugar cooperatives.
The region consists of eight Lok Sabha constituencies -- Pune, Baramati, Solapur, Sangli, Satara, Hatkangale, Kolhapur, and Madha. Here, the cooperative movement and prosperity of the region has a direct link with politics.
Till Shetty stepped into the fray, there was no contender for the Maratha-controlled hold of the NCP-Congress.
The BJP-Sena alliance could not get a single Lok Sabha seat in this belt in the 2009 general election.
A farmer-leader like Shetty is exactly what the Maha Yuti has been looking for.
Shetty has accused ministers of paying sugarcane farmers far below the Fair and Remunerative Price as announced by the government. The Sanghatana's last agitation in November 2009 turned violent and two farmers died in the protests.
Shetty has been accused by his political rivals of organising protests to gain national attention. Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar once challenged Shetty to operate a cooperative factory instead of undertaking violent protests, which he said Shetty uses to hold the government to ransom.
There is traditional enmity between the SSS and NCP. In the last Lok Sabha election, Shetty defeated the NCP's Nivedita Mande from the Hatkanangle constituency by nearly 100,000 votes. However, the SSS has no presence or hold in other constituencies.
BJP leaders like Gopinath Munde and Devendra Fadnavis believe Shetty's support will help the saffron alliance in this region.
They know it may take a while for Shetty to chip away at the bastions of Maratha leaders like Ajit Pawar and his uncle, Union Minister Sharad Pawar.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won 20 of Maharashtra's 48 seats. This time, riding on the Narendra Modi wave, the saffron alliance hopes to repeat its 1996 performance of 33 Lok Sabha seats.
It is not an easy task, despite the widespread resentment against the United Progressive Alliance government.
Shetty will need to get a network of effective candidates who will not scatter Opposition votes, but make an effective dent in Congress-NCP votes.
His Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana will have to perform much better than the last assembly election when it did not win a single seat.
Image: Raju Shetty