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The trader who is leading a party of Jat farmers

November 18, 2013 17:58 IST

In this season of elections, Rajasthan is getting its own crop of new political parties. One of them, launched by B D Agarwal who is India's largest manufacturer and exporter of guar gum powder, comes like a blast from the past.

Agarwal's Zamindara Party takes its name from the zamindari system which was abolished soon after Independence. It stood for everything that newly-born India wanted to break free from, including oppression at the hands of rich zamindars (landlords).

Seen in the historical context, it's an interesting equation which 60-year-old Agarwal is creating through his Zamindara Party in the state. Agarwal comes from an agricultural family from Siwani in Haryana. His party is headquartered in Sri Ganganagar, the northernmost city of Rajasthan.

He is a baniya (trader) who is leading a party of largely Jat farmers. He draws inspiration from Jat leader Chhotu Ram who had formed the Unionist Party (Zamindara League) in 1923. The Congress viewed Chhotu Ram and his fellow Unionists as pro-imperialist, pro-feudal and pro-zamindars.

Chhotu Ram countered this charge by declaring "I am inqilab personified" and launched a struggle to create a non-sectarian peasant group, hitting back at the Congress by calling it a "baniya" party.

It is this legacy of Chhotu Ram that the billionaire guar gum merchant hopes to carry forward.

The party's 100-page, 100-point manifesto has plenty of promises for the farming community: special status for Rajasthan, setting up of at least four seed farms, fallow land for the landless, changes in the land acquisition laws, dearness allowance to farmers and labourers, opening the Pakistan border for trade, debt relief, and so on.

Agarwal might be new in the arena of politics, but he is by no means a light weight. He is the chairman and managing director of Vikas WSP, a company which counts itself among the world's leading manufacturers and exporters of guar gum powder. (WSP stands for 'water soluble polymers').

This is used in the food and pharmaceutical industries, oil drilling and fracking, textile printing and paper making. Multinationals such as Nestle, Mars, Heinz and Unilever are among its users. Some of the countries he exports to are the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan.

Agarwal claims to have the support of over 350,000 guar gum farmers whose fate he has changed. Guar gum, called 'green gold', has changed the fortunes of the farmers in the region, though now competition from China has slowed the growth story marginally -- an issue which Agarwal is telling the farmers he will address by getting them better money for their produce.

Agarwal himself is not in the fray, though his wife Bimla Devi Jindal and daughter Kamini Jindal are contesting from Sri Ganganagar and Sangaria, respectively. The mother-daughter have declared assets worth Rs 2,959 crore -- that's more than the wealth of several ex-royals.

Bimla Devi is, in fact, the richest candidate in the running. Her wealth is 700 times more than that of Vasundhara Raje, who is Bharatiya Janata Party's chief ministerial candidate and former royal.

Agarwal views himself as the son of the soil. His language is the language of the land -- rustic and direct -- but he also quotes Napoleon Bonaparte. "He launched the party after the government turned down his request for World Trade Organisation rates for farmers," says party functionary Amit Bansal.

Money has never been a constraint for Agarwal. He had once approached Raje when she was chief minister with a cheque of Rs 100 crore for a medical college in Sri Ganganagar. But, as he told a TV channel, Raje was not interested. So, recently he went to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, again with a cheque of Rs 100 crore.

Gehlot reportedly told him, "You have the money, why don't you build the college yourself?" Eventually, Gehlot did lay the foundation stone for the college this September. The event also proved to be a show of strength for Agarwal. Twenty thousand people turned up for the ceremony. The guar gum king knew he had arrived.

Veenu Sandhu in New Delhi
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