At a cattle camp in Limba Devi village of central Maharashtra’s Beed, Kachrusaheb Rathod, 62, sounded angry when asked about the Narendra Modi government.

“Traders groups have done well in this government but not farmers,” Rathod said. “The price of milk is Rs 17 to Rs 18 per litre, but a bottle of water costs Rs 20. What has Modi done for us?”

This is the third year since 2012 when rainfall has been so low that the state government has opened camps to provide free fodder and water for cows and buffalos. In this election year, it has taken care to set up camps in almost every panchayat cluster of Beed district, instead of a few large ones at the block level. Beed has the highest number of such camps in Maharashtra, but most opened only in March, well after distress had set in.

In any case, few services the government provides can lift the bleak mood of Beed’s farmers. At the same Limba Devi camp, Hasrubhai Sanap, 55, said like most other farmers in the district, he was unable to sow any crops last year because there was no rain.

Though Sanap, a Bharatiya Janata Party worker, repeatedly interjected to defend Modi while Rathod spoke, even he agreed that farmers had suffered under this government. “We don’t get prices in the market even when we can grow our crops,” Sanap said. “But which government will provide us with rain?”

A young man who declined to be named chimed in, “Forget rates in the market. We did not even have the money to take our crop to the market.”

He still supported the BJP. “Because of them, we have new highways, water, houses,” he said. “At least they are doing that much.”

Sanap added, laughing, “Whatever we think, Modi is in our hearts. Does anyone actually know before going to the booth who they will vote for? Candidates will have to depend on the divine inspiration we get at that moment.”

The Beed constituency votes on April 18.

Kachrusaheb Rathod, right, and Hasrubhai Sanap, third from right, at the cattle camp in Limba Devi. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Shifting allegiances 

The most prominent candidates in the fray are the BJP’s Pritam Munde and the Nationalist Congress Party’s Bajrang Sonawane. Pritam Munde won the seat in a bye-election in October 2014, securing the biggest majority in the Lok Sabha’s history. The bye-election had been necessitated by the death of her father, senior BJP leader Gopinath Munde, in June that year. The Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party had decided not to contest the election as a mark of respect for her father.

Five years on, Pritam Munde still benefits from her father’s popularity and the loyalty that her family name commands in Beed. This is what Bajrang Sonawane, a local leader from Kaij taluka backed by the BJP candidate’s cousin, Dhananjay Munde of the Nationalist Congress Party, will have to overcome.

The election season has brought along the usual shuffle of support from one party to another.

In April, senior National Congress Party leader Jaydutt Kshirsagar declared his support for Pritam Munde and met Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. Kshirsagar is popular in Beed and expected to get his party’s nomination. He has not yet joined a new party.

Sunil Dhande, a former Shiv Sena legislator from Beed, went the other way, citing Kshirsagar’s defection as the reason. Shiv Sangram’s Vinayak Mete, who supported the BJP-Sena alliance in 2014, has switched sides as well.

Though it is widely seen to be a straight fight between Pritam Munde and Sonawane, Beed has 36 candidates to choose from, making it the most diverse fray in Maharashtra. There is even a namesake of Bajrang Sonawane.

Bajrang Digambar Sonawane, 68, a farmer from Shirur has never participated in electoral politics before. “I had been thinking of running for many days as nobody does work in our area,” he explained over the phone. His campaign is limited to his own village, where he is certain of getting many votes. He has no illusion about winning himself, but is certain that Pritam Munde will prevail.

“She has a 100% chance in Beed,” Bajrang Digambar Sonawane said. “The BJP has done good work in this district. They have made roads and finally started work on the railway.”

Several ministers and MPs over the decades have promised Beed town a railway connection but it is still waiting, although work has finally started and parts of railway tracks can be seen lined along the highways.

Bajrang Digambar Sonawane claimed he was not a BJP supporter out to confuse the voters who might favour his namesake. He first heard of his namesake from the Nationalist Congress Party when he went to file his nomination, the independent candidate added.

A pair of bulls at a cattle camp near Ashti. Their owner, like many others at the camp, has just returned after a season of cutting sugarcane in Baramati. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Growing distress

At a cattle camp run by the Siddhivinayak Sushikshit Berozgai Samiti at Kherla village in Patoda taluka, most people were from the Vanjari community. Many had just returned after a season of working in sugarcane factories in western Maharashtra. They felt proud that Gopinath Munde belonged to their community.

“There were fewer camps last time but larger ones,” said Shivaji Rakh, a former sarpanch from the Nationalist Congress Party who runs the camp. “Now, there is one in every panchayat. This is something the government has done well.”

Still, farmers were angry with the central government. Several people at the Kherla camp were scornful about the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, a crop insurance scheme. “I received Rs 23 as insurance for my mung and urad, both of which failed,” said Shahurao Rakh, a farmer at the camp. He also got no compensation for soyabean and cotton, which are not covered by the scheme in Beed.

Shivaji Rakh in front of a heap of fodder he was about to distribute at the camp. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

There are widespread signs of agrarian distress in Beed. Lacking enough water to even sow their fields, farmers are beginning to despair, with several selling their smaller animals they could not bring to the camps.

Omprakash Nagrik at the Kherla camp said he had to sell 10-15 of his goats for Rs 2,000 each a month ago. He had bought them for Rs 6,000 each four to five years ago. He only had two cows and four buffalos left now. “There is no grass anywhere for the goats to graze on,” Nagrik said. “If I had kept them, they would have died. Now I do not know when I will be able to buy such animals again.”

Farmers pointed out the drought is so intense this year that these tamarind trees are yet to grow leaves. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Since there was almost no rainfall in 2018, those running the camps have to get water and fodder from even farther away than in previous years. Camp managers estimated that the money allocated by the government – Rs 90 for per adult animal and Rs 45 per calf – was not enough to cover the costs.

“In a few months, all the animals you see here will be half their weight,” said Dadasaheb Bund, 38, who runs a cattle camp near Ashti town. “We sometimes have to get fodder from about 200 km away. That is how bad our situation is.”

Widespread cynicism

While most farmers at the camps said they believed in Modi, there was an overwhelming sense of cynicism about the election. “This is not like other constituencies where we have candidates to be excited about,” said Shivaji Rakh. “For us, this is an ordinary election that will not change much.”

Pandurang Nagargoje, a farmer at the Kherla camp, added. “We are more worried about the animals than the election. Our day goes in just taking care of them. We barely know who the candidates are.”

A BJP campaign banner at the Ashti bus stand in Beed. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Dadu Shinde, 76, has what he calls “three and a half animals”, three adult cattle and a calf, at the camp in Limba Devi. Shinde said he had not received compensation, insurance or even a crop loan waiver. When others tried to convince him that he must have missed the deposit, he grew indignant. “Come to my bank right now and I will show you I have not got any money,” he said.

But despite his anger against the Modi government, Shinde was despondent about the election. “No matter which government comes, what can anyone do about the drought?” Shinde asked. “This government or that government. Does our vote really matter?”

Also read: In drought-hit Maharashtra, a fourth of its villages are staring at a water crisis by April

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