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The Battle for Maharashtra

The Rediff Special/Anand Bhisey in Nagpur

October 12, 2004

Vidarbha is located in eastern Maharashtra. It borders Madhya Pradesh in the north, Chhattisgarh in the east, Andhra Pradesh in the south and the Marathwada region of Maharashtra in the west.

It comprises 11 districts: Amravati, Akola, Bhandara, Buldhana, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Gondia, Nagpur, Wardha, Washim and Yavatmal.

Vidarbha is a cauldron of culture. While Maharashtrian culture is predominant, there is a remarkable influence of other cultures, especially north Indian, Gond/Chhattisgarhi and tribal.

The major city, Nagpur, is the 'second capital' of Maharashtra and hosts the winter session of the state assembly.

What the region is known for?

Santra (oranges). It has earned the nickname 'the California of India'.

Vidarbha at a glance

Area: 97,409 sq km

Languages: Marathi, Hindi, Komti, Gond, Telugu

Crops: cotton, orange, rice

Raw material: coal, limestone

Industries: coal mining, cement, steel, polyester yarn, power plants

Major city: Nagpur
The cotton is also famous. In fact, the foundation of the mighty Tata Group was laid in Nagpur with the setting up of the Empress Mill, now defunct.

It has dense forest cover, varied flora and fauna, and hence a major tourist destination, especially eco-tourism. Among the popular destinations are Chikhaldara, a hill station in Amravati district, Lonar in Buldhana district, which boasts of the largest lake in the world created by the impact of a meteor.

Other favourites are Sindkhed-Raja (district Buldhana), which is the birthplace of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj's mother Jijamata, Sewagram (district Wardha), Mahatma Gandhi's base for several years, and Paunar (district Wardha), where Acharya Vinoba Bhave lived and worked.


Some excellent roads but several parts still lack all-weather roads.

Has several power plants but is deficient in electricity because most of it is transmitted to the western parts of the state.

Drinking water is a major problem. So is health, with large sections of the population not having access to even the most basic medical facilities.

The education scenario is good. There are a large number of primary, middle and high schools, although a lot of children cannot attend because of poverty and inaccessibility. It boasts of a network of polytechnics and ITIs and there are several private institutions offering in higher education, particularly in engineering and medicine.

Notable among them are VNIT (Visweswarayya National Institute of Technology, formerly known as VRCE - Visweswarayya Regional College of Engineering), LIT (Laxminarayan Institute of Technology), NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute), NBSSLUP (National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning) and PKV (Punjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth).

Brief political history

Vidarbha is a stronghold of the Congress. The region voted for Indira Gandhi even during the country's worst anti-Congress wave in 1977.

But the fortress began crumbling in 1985 with the growing influence of the BJP and the Shiv Sena. The party's worst performance came in the 1995 assembly polls, when it won only 17 of the 66 assembly seats, with the saffron combine bagging 33. It was a photo finish in 1999, with the saffron combine winning 29 seats and the Congress and NCP sharing 31 between them.

The Congress-NCP combine is spending sleepless nights this time because of its poor performance at the recent Lok Sabha elections, when it won only one of the 11 seats.

The issues

Backwardness. Each party harps on what it did to speed up development and paints rosy pictures of the future.

Suicides by a large number of debt-ridden farmers get a passing mention, if at all. The statehood issue has failed to find any takers and the two major political combines (Congress-Nationalist Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena) have given it a very cold shoulder focussing instead on their performance while in power.

The caste equations

The Kunbi community is an influential lot in Vidarbha. The other major groups are the dalits, the Muslims and the Komtis.

They do not vote for any party per se; they vote for themselves. The bottom line is that they want their man in the legislature/Parliament. This is the psychology that has seen many a giant bite the dust even when political calculations indicated otherwise. No party has escaped this phenomenon.

Top political personalities

It has given two chief ministers: Vasantrao Naik and his nephew Sudhakarrao but there is no political leader who holds sway over the entire region. The last one to do so was Vidarbha ka sher Jambuwantrao Dhote. He could attract crowds of lakhs, but that was over three decades ago.

Banwarilal Purohit was once a hit among the masses, especially after he quit the Congress in 1991 on the Ayodhya issue. However, he lost credibility when he quit the BJP and returned to the Congress in 1999, only to quit again last year on the issue of Vidarbha's statehood.

Former state Congress chief Ranjit Deshmukh raises the statehood issue now and then, but does little else. The BJP's Nitin Gadkari emerged as a leader of some influence in recent years, especially after he claimed credit for improving the road network in the region.

Among the political movers and shakers are Datta Meghe, Praful Patel (both NCP) and Naresh Pugalia (Congress).

Where does the money come from?

Besides coal, minerals and mining, education is considered the biggest money-making business. Several private educational institutions, especially those of higher education, have mushroomed in the region. Every leader of some repute operates one or several colleges.

Agriculture is another major source of income.

Industrialists and businessmen who fund party activities usually prefer to stay in the background. Some make contributions to all parties.

At the time of elections, it is common for parties to collect money for a purse to be presented to prominent leaders amid much fanfare. The leader then returns the money to the local party unit for its activities.

One good thing is...

Although it has had its share of problems, Vidarbha has been mostly free of communal trouble. It has stayed calm, except for a few minor incidents, even during the worst crises that the country has faced, for example the 1984 riots in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination and in 1992-93 in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition.

Image design: Rahil Shaikh

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