Farm unrest threatens Modi’s vote harvest in key states

Farm unrest threatens Modi’s vote harvest in key states

PTI photos

As his party hurtles towards state and general elections in the coming months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farm headache is only growing.

Agrarian protests have haunted the BJP-led government from time to time ever since Modi came to power in 2014. Indeed, one focus of the government’s effort to contain Tuesday’s violence was to prevent farmer deaths of the sort that occurred in a similar protest in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, last year.

The protest at the Delhi-UP border also evoked unpleasant memories of what happened on the Jaipur-Sikar highway in February, when irate farmers seeking loan waivers and the implementation of recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Commission report were denied entry into the Rajasthan capital.

The government’s discomfiture is heightened by the fact that both MP and Rajasthan, where the BJP faces anti-incumbency, are set for elections by year-end. Smaller Chhattisgarh, another BJP-ruled and poll-bound state, was hit by similar protests a few months ago. Farmers largely belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a group that accounts for up to half the electorate in most states.

The BJP’s disastrous handling of various Dalit issues is well documented, and the Opposition is trying to forge Dalit-Kisan unity. Handily, the protests happened on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who championed the Dalit cause, and Lal Bahadur Shastri, who placed farmers on a pedestal with his Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan slogan.

The saffron party has a reverse Midas touch as far as farmers go. Rewind to 2015, when the government had to withdraw a contentious land acquisition bill as massive protests erupted at its perceived hostility to farmers.  The Congress’s ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ jibe was unusually effective.  NCP chief and former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has been quick to brand the Modi dispensation the “most anti-farmer government”. Some of this is bound to stick.

The BJP’s response has been to rename the relevant ministry as the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, promise to double farmers’ income by 2022, and frame a crop insurance scheme. But the harvest of all this sowing has been unexpectedly bitter thus far.