Elections in the village
Kolwan is the name of a little place high in the Western Ghats mountain range, located east of Mumbai. Around a hundred families make their living here cultivating rice, millet and wheat. Kolwan has a large school and a small health clinic. A cell tower at the entrance to the town marks a new age, but in many areas, customs and views have remained unchanged for centuries. There is no indication of the massive upcoming election.
With a slight smile, farmer Pandurang Didhe invites me into his spacious and sparkling clean house. Over his stubble-bearded, round face sits the usual headgear here: a white sailor's hat, which supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party also wear. Pandurang Didhe lives in a large family, a total of 17 people strong. Together with his two brothers, he manages just less than two hectares of land. There may be no car in front of their house, but the family counts among the wealthy in Kolwan. The elder brother was the village chief for ten years. Pandurang Didhe is politically active in Kolwan. The voting behavior of the majority of voters is pretty clear, he explains with pride, "Almost all residents are supporters of the Nationalist Congress Party, the party of the sitting Minister of Agriculture, Sharad Pawar. Some also vote for the parent Congress Party; however, the Hindu parties BJP and Shiv Sena have very little support here."
I ask if he has heard of the new Aam Aadmi Party. "I heard about this party in the news, but I don’t know what they actually want. They don't have any candidates in our electoral district, so they also don’t have any supporters among us."
I wonder about the fact that there are no posters in the village that refer to the upcoming election. "Is there no election campaign here?" I ask. "Actually, the National Parliamentary elections play a minor role here," says Pandurang Didhe. "The decisions that are important for us are made namely at the local level: Whether and where a new street will be built or how high the sale price for our agricultural products will be. The elections to the village and county council are carried out very passionately, but in the case of the National Parliament, some posters will appear just a few days before the election. Sometimes party activists will visit to accompany us to the polls."
It's not necessary to campaign in Kolwan anyways, says the clever farmer, since 80 percent of the residents would always vote for the same party. They are loyal supporters of Sharad Pawar, who has been pulling the political strings in the state of Maharashtra for more than 30 years. For the last five years, Sharad Pawar has also been India's sitting Agricultural Minister. However, he is not standing for re-election this year; he is letting his daughter, Supriya Sule, represent him. Pandurang Didhe adds, "Sharad Pawar has been our leader for 30 years. He developed this area here, and we are thankful to him for that. That's why we vote for his party. We farmers earn four times as much for sugar cane compared to five years ago. We have the Agricultural Minister to thank for that."
The western Indian state of Maharashtra is one of the most economically advanced and has the highest per capita income among all rural states in the vast country. The capital of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is India's financial center and home to the Bollywood film industry. Mumbai and the sister cities of Nasik and Pune profit greatly from globalization, for numerous multinational companies have branches here, including the cream of the German automobile industry.
Aside from the mega cities, life continues to be dominated by agriculture. Eastern Maharashtra gained notoriety in the last few years because thousands of highly indebted farmers took their lives by consuming pesticides. The West is, however, comparatively wealthy, thanks to numerous irrigation projects that utilize river waters from the Western Ghats. Thanks to irrigation, the region has been able to turn itself into one of the most important areas for cultivating sugar cane. India is the world's second largest producer of the sweet substance. Sugar cane is a cash-crop, i.e., it is grown for the market, not for the farmers' personal consumption. In recent years, the farmers in Maharashtra have repeatedly protested for an increase in the purchase price.
Sharad Pawar founded his power mainly based on the many sugar cooperatives that purchase the harvest from regional farmers at a price set by the government. The crafty, some say ruthless, politician thus determines the income of hundreds of thousands of farming families. He himself owns extensive tracts of land and holds interests in numerous industrial companies. His wealth enabled his success in politics, and his political offices enabled him to increase his wealth. In recent years, he and his family have repeatedly come under suspicion of corruption. He secures support from Kolwan residents through generous monetary gifts, which Pandurang Didhe candidly admits, "My older brother was our village chief for a long time. That's how I know from personal experience that the village head receives money from politicians to tell people for whom they should vote. However, the younger generation wants to know nothing of this. But it's actually not even necessary because everyone sees the progress here. Before, there was nothing here; now we can even grow sugar cane. There are streets, schools and hospitals all because of Sharad Pawar! We don't need to tell the people anymore for whom they should vote."
On the outskirts of the city of Ahmednagar, about 150 kilometers east of Pune, giant campaign posters line a dusty square the size of two football fields. Tens of thousands of people endure the midday sun, passing the time with chatter and jokes. Suddenly, unease enters the crowd. An auto caravan pulls up with sirens blaring. Bodyguards with grey safari suits and machine guns in front of their chests build a line in the middle of the audience, through which the speaker can take the stage. Sharad Pawar enters like a Bollywood star, with a big smile and raised arms.
He was head of the Maharashtra government twice before his career took him to New Delhi, the center of power. As head of the Nationalist Congress Party, he now has the duty to support his candidates in the province. Although he clearly makes an effort during his speech to arouse emotion, he only receives a lukewarm applause. He promises what almost all politicians promise: political stability, economic growth, new jobs, and support for the poor. It is all over after an hour. Sharad Pawar boards a helicopter and rushes to his next appointment, one of more than ten on this day.