The NCP failed to defend the Pandharpur seat as candidate Bhagirath Bhalke, son of late MLA Bharat Bhalke, lost to BJP’s Samadhan Autade, after results of the bypoll were declared on Sunday. Among multiple reasons being cited for Bhagirath’s defeat are pending cane dues with the cooperative sugar mill managed by the Bhalke family, which managed to alienate voters.
Spread between two talukas of Pandharpur and Mangalvedha in Solapur district, the Pandharpur Assembly constituency has six sugar mills in the area. While Bhalke was the chairperson of Sri Vitthal cooperative sugar Mill, Autade managed Sant Damaji cooperative sugar mill. Like other areas in the state, sugar barons in Solapur often vie for political supremacy, and their cooperative mills often prove to be their bastion.
Mills in Solapur have finished their crushing for the 2020-21 season, are yet to clear dues to their farmers. Bhalke’s mill had procured 3.03 lakh tonnes of cane, for which it had to pay farmers Rs 63.94 crore as basic fair and remunerative price (FRP). Till April 30, however, the mill had cleared payment of only Rs 24.18 crore, running up arrears worth Rs 39.76 crore. Autade’s mill, on the other hand, crushed 1.33 lakh tonnes of cane, for which it had to pay farmers Rs 27.68 crore. Of this, payment of Rs 23.16 crore had been fulfilled.
Insiders from the NCP said unpaid dues played a major part in Bhalke’s defeat from a seat which his father had retained over the past three terms. During the 2019 elections, Bharat Bhalke had, in fact, defeated BJP strongman Prashant Paricharak, whose family manages the Pandurang cooperative mills in the district and is considered to be a good paymaster.
Pandharpur is supposed to be the stronghold of the Bhalke clan with the mill located in the area. In the core 38 villages, which form the command area of the mill, failed to rise up in Bhalke’s support. This would not be the only time when the mill has been in trouble; in fact, it had problems raising funds to even start the season this year. Bhalke’s mills received the state government’s guarantee of Rs 30 crore for raising capital to start the season.
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While both Bhalke and Autade are from the Maratha community, Autade gained the support of Paricharkar and the powerful Mohite-Patil clan of Solapur. Paricharak, who commands a vast network of support due to his cooperative institutions, helped Autade gain support from the Brahmin community, especially in the pilgrim town of Pandharpur. The community is upset with the state government’s decision to shut temples and other places of worship. Aakash Chatake, a farmer and political observer of the area, said local issues came into bigger play than national or state issues that cropped up during the campaign. Autade and Paricharkar have an extensive network of companies and, thus, are fuelling the rural economy.
“At the end, non-payment of cane bills became a bigger issue than anything that NCP leaders talked about during the campaign,” he said.