It took an agriculturist to stare down the Union minister for agriculture—and in his own backyard. Raju Shetti, member of Parliament (MP) and founder of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana (SSS), a farmer’s organization, seriously dented Sharad Pawar’s bastion in western Maharashtra by spearheading a successful agitation for higher sugar-cane prices from sugar cooperatives. It’s no mean feat, given Pawar’s wide-ranging influence and the fact that the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) founder has dominated the sugar-cane belt in Maharashtra for several years.
“I am glad that pundits like you (the media) have taken note of my work, but I am more happy that I have been able to give some justice to sugar-cane growers, if not completely,” says 45-year-old Shetti. Following a rousing agitation by the SSS, the sugar cooperatives agreed in November to let farmers sell their cane for an upfront payment of Rs.25 per kg, as opposed to Rs.23 per kg. The impact of the increase will continue to reverberate in the state in the coming months, Shetti promises. “The word politician has become a term of abuse in the eyes of the common people,” he says. “During 2013, my mission will be to change this perception and reduce the influence of money and muscle power in politics.”
Shetti is more Mahendra Singh Tikait than Charan Singh at the moment—a regional-level leader who has the ability to alter political equations by taking on a national figure in his own turf. Shetti’s first serious challenge to Pawar was before the general election in 2009. Shetti’s Swabhimani Paksha party, which was set up that very year, defeated the NCP’s Nivedita Mane by 95,000 votes despite a severe fund crunch. Yet, Shetti hasn’t been able to replicate this success in subsequent elections to local self-government bodies, and remains the lone MP from his party. That may change, given his plans in 2013 to campaign for the abolition of the Land Acquisition Act 1894. Shetti will also place his views on the Land Acquisition Bill, which will be tabled in Parliament during the Budget session. The Bill, he says, needs to protect farmers from being forced to give up their land.