On Wednesday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis flew into Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra to hold a rally in support the BJP’s candidate, Sujay Vikhe-Patil.
“A vote for Sujay will be a vote for (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi,” Mr Fadnavis said.
Mr Vikhe-Patil, the son of Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, the Congress party’s leader of opposition in Maharashtra, was with the Congress recently. His crossing sides to the BJP sent shockwaves through the political establishment.
Sujay Vikhe-Patil is a big catch for the BJP, not just for his father’s stature: the family controls at least three sugar cooperatives in Ahmednagar: Dr VV Patil Pravara Sugar Mill, Dr BB Tanpure Sugar Mill and Ganesh Sugar Factory.
These cooperatives, a source of political patronage, have been traditionally been under the control of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra’s sugar belt, giving those parties inordinate clout in this region.
But in a time of BJP ascendancy, many sugar mill ‘barons’ from the Congress-NCP, like Mr Vikhe-Patil, have crossed sides, allowing the BJP to expand its political base.
This, as the BJP may discover, is a double-edged sword: these ‘imports’ bring clout, but also potential farmer anger. The three Vikhe-Patil cooperatives between them owe an estimated Rs 164 crore to cane farmers in unpaid dues, government data shows.
Sujay Vikhe-Patil told NDTV that he is making an effort to clear his dues.
Maharashtra’s sugar mills owe an estimated Rs. 5,000 crore to cane farmers, a result of a complex mix of domestic glut, falling global prices and mismanagement. In election season, this has the potential to anger cane farmers, a crucial bank of voters in this region.
Other factories in Ahmednagar district, headed by Congress-NCP ‘imports’ to the BJP, include the Sai Krupa Sugar Factory, led by Babanrao Pajpute, an ex-NCP leader, now with the BJP. It has unpaid dues of Rs. 28 crore.
The Vraddheshwar Sugar Factory is reportedly controlled by Monica Rajale, formerly with the Congress, now a BJP legislator. It has unpaid dues of about Rs. 23 crore.
Factories that continue to be controlled by the NCP-Congress in the district owe roughly Rs. 120 crore. The difference: earlier, the fallout of unpaid dues and erratic payments was borne largely by those parties; now the BJP, too, is facing farmer anger.
A clutch of cane farmers we met in Ahmednagar, who sold their cane to the Vikhe-Patil mills said that in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, they had voted for Narendra Modi because of the promise of change.
The BJP had won the Ahmednagar seat with a margin of over 2 lakh votes.
Now, they said, they may rethink their choice.
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