In Gujarat’s dairy world, BJP gets the cream of the crop

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Seventeen years ago, an anguished Dr Verghese Kurien, pre-empting his removal, had stepped down as founder-chairman of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) — the umbrella body of dairy co-operatives based in Anand that owns the iconic Amul brand. Announcing his resignation on March 6, 2006, at the Indian Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), another institution he had set up, Kurien had famously said, “I am anguished and pained by the recent move of the GCMMF Board against me. Having served the cooperative dairy sector for over five decades with complete dedication and commitment, do I deserve this kind of treatment?”

Three years later, the Gujarat government asked the GCMMF to withdraw the perks to Kurien. For an organisation that had booted out an institution like Kurien, the ouster of GCMMF Managing Director Rupinder Singh Sodhi fit into a list of unceremonious exits of high-profile management who did not toe the political line. Since Sodhi’s exit, Baroda Dairy chairman Dinesh Patel alias Dinu Mama has quit, and on January 21 three top officials of Surat’s SUMUL dairy were removed on charges of irregularities. The Baroda and Surat dairies are members of the GCMMF.

The intense politicking is solely over wresting control over a body that not only has an annual turnover of Rs 61,000 crore, but also has under its umbrella a sizeable 36.4 lakh farmers among milk producers of the 18 district dairy unions.

Presenting the last annual report as the GCMMF chairman for the year 2004-05, Dr Kurien had stressed on professionals heading cooperatives. Fearing that the cash-rich milk cooperatives can easily turn into an arena for political wrestlers, Kurien in his speech had cautioned: “No political consideration must colour the policies, objectives, strategies and functioning of a co-operative.”

But Kurien was the last non-political chairman of the GCMMF. Parthi Bhatol who succeeded him, and was twice chairman of the federation, unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election in 2019 on a Congress ticket. His son Vasant won the Danta seat by-election in Banaskantha in 2009 on a BJP ticket, and joined the Congress in 2019, just ahead of the Lok Sabha election. He returned to the BJP last year.

Bhatol was succeeded as the GCMMF chairman by the then chairman of Mehsana’s Dudhsagar Dairy, Vipul Chaudhary, a former minister in the Shankersinh Vaghela government. Chaudhary quit the Congress to join the BJP in 2007 in the presence of then chief minister Narendra Modi. However, in 2013, the BJP frowned upon Chaudhary’s “closeness” to the UPA 2 government at the Centre, when, as Amul chairman, he sent Rs 22 crore worth of cattle fodder to Maharashtra, free of cost. An FIR was lodged against him at Mehsana. The GCMMF removed him via a no-confidence motion, which he fought in the Gujarat High Court and lost in 2014.

He later lost elections to the Dudhsagar Dairy, and in December 2020, the Anti Corruption Bureau arrested him in a Rs 14.8 crore bonus scam at Dudhsagar Dairy. He also faces another investigation by the same agency in a Rs 800 crore worth of ‘irregularities’ at the dairy between 2005-2016, for which he was arrested in September 2022. However, given his clout in the Chaudhary community, even Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel did not seem to mind sharing the stage with him at a recent community event.

Amul Dairy Chairman and seven-time Congress MLA from Thasra in Central Gujarat, Ramsinh Parmar’s graph is similar. In 2017, he was among the 14 MLAs who quit the Congress, following the footsteps of then Leader of Opposition Shankersinh Vaghela. The following year, he was unanimously elected chairman of the GCMMF and re-elected as Amul Dairy chairman, a post he has held since 2002. In the recent Assembly elections, his son Yogendra was elected to the Thasra seat on a BJP ticket.

Of the 18 dairy unions that are members of the GCMMF, the Amul Dairy or Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers’ Union Limited is the only one with Congress members, and has Congress ex- MLA from Borsad Rajendrasinh Parmar as its vice-chairman. The rest are all under BJP control. Both Parmar and Chaudhary were earlier Kurien backers.

While Shankar Chaudhary, the Speaker of the Gujarat Assembly, continues to be the chairman of Banas Dairy, Jetha Bharwad, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Panchmahal Dairy, continues to head district cooperatives. Both are board members of the GCMMF, and were among 17 of the 18 board members who were present at Anand when sitting chairman Shamal Patel and vice-chairman Valamji Humbal were re-elected on January 24. In this latest election for GCMMF posts, sources told The Indian Express that the mandate for the re-election came directly from the BJP.

In the case of Sodhi too, at least two members of the GCMMF board said his ouster was political. There was no farewell for him either. The GCMMF did not even issue a statement. Two days after remaining incommunicado, GCMMF chairman Shamal Patel confirmed it was the decision of the board.

The board of directors at the GCMMF, on condition of anonymity, have told The Indian Express that Sodhi was asked to step down on the directors of “the party (BJP)” and the decision was taken to “save the Amul brand”. “Two decades ago, leaders of the milk unions in Gujarat were aligned with the Congress. Now the baton has passed on to the BJP,” said a former member of the GCMMF. No wonder then that milk cooperative leaders like Ramsinh Parmar, Vipul Chaudhary and Parthi Bhatol, who were all part of the Congress when Dr Kurien headed GCMMF, have gradually shifted their allegiance to the BJP, which now controls Gujarat’s milk cooperatives.