Farmers’ fury that buried BJP

Backlash: How agrarian crisis and its mishandling led to BJP defeat in Hindi heartland states

The eye, the epicentre of a hurricane, remains calm even when a storm ravages the land around it. Metaphorically, Mandsaur stayed unaffected by an issue that majorly cost the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a fourth-time win in Madhya Pradesh in the assembly election. 

Located in the Malwa region to the west of MP, this prosperous town that lives off opium cultivation was in the news in 2017 when police killed six farmers who agitated for a loan waiver and better crop remuneration.

Mandsaur became a pilgrim spot from where Congress president Rahul Gandhi sounded the bugle for a long, unsparing campaign against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.  Ironically, Mandsaur saved the BJP the blushes in Malwa because it retained all seven (of the eight) seats it won in 2013 while the Congress secured one, Suwarsa, by 350 votes.

Local Congressmen ascribed the poor showing to “flawed” candidates’ selection.  Whatever the explanation by hindsight, Mandsaur became a by-word for all that went wrong with
agricultural management in MP and over-stressed its rural economy that had posted milestones in the 12 years that Chouhan (the first three years of the BJP’s 15 years were divided up between Uma Bharati and Babulal Gaur) ruled.

Mandsaur’s impact cascaded down to the rest of MP. To farmers and sharecroppers in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, it underscored the fragility of their local economies, burdened further by demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime.


 

The many strands in the agrarian narrative such as lower-than-minimum support price (MSP) for food grains and pulses, uneven reach of certain “correctives”, notably MP’s “Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana”, sudden reduction in the circulation of hard cash caused by “note bandi” and higher prices on essentials brought about by GST coalesced into a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the state and central governments.

Voters were acutely aware of the fact that GST and demonetisation were extolled by the BJP as signposts which purportedly ushered in a new generation of fiscal reforms under the Narendra Modi government.

In the BJP-Congress battle fought in the three states of the Hindi heartland, other issues that both sides flagged such as the polemics over “hard” and “soft” Hindutva, caste equations and “nationalism” went missing or were spotted as particles on their agendas.

Caste figured in parts of MP and Rajasthan.  For the upper castes, the BJP’s loud espousal of reservations for Dalits and tribes in job promotions in the government sector was the proverbial red rag to the bull. In Rajasthan, caste ran as a parallel stream to agriculture in certain places owing to local circumstances.

However, on a larger canvas, the “kisan” (farmer) dominated the discourse, responses and counter-responses. Caste identities had largely melted down while the charge of the Congress’s Muslim “appeasement”, that the BJP raked up, did not matter much even to the party’s hardcore adherents.   

In retrospect, the BJP should have seen the warning from Gujarat’s vast countryside in the 2017 elections even as it secured its hold over the urban areas and staged an encore in south Gujarat. What were the messages from the villages and provincial towns?  Unjha in north Gujarat is regarded as Asia’s largest wholesale market in spices. Unjha never ever voted another party save the Jana Sangh and later the BJP. Yet, in 2017, it rejected the BJP because GST had scaled down the volume of business and exports the wholesalers traded in by nearly 50%. The traders complained that the tax they paid on exports was never refunded as mandated under the GST rules.

The fall in business returns impacted the farmers who said the traders picked up just 40 to 50% of their produce because of cash crunch.

Their payments came in driblets because the traders were not refunded. This cycle was manifest in MP and
Rajasthan. The size of agricultural business might be smaller than in Gujarat but in marketplace after marketplace, the sight of unsold sacks of produce was commonplace because the traders were short of money after note “bandi”.  

Although the former BJP governments might have hoped that the “assets” they created for the rural sector in terms of houses under central projects including the “Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana-Gramin”, more roads, active LPG connections under the “Ujjwala Yojana”, vaster electricity coverage and opening up of bank accounts under the “Jan-Dhan Yojana”, might become a panacea for agrarian issues, they did not, simply because the Centre had curtailed spending under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as a result of which rural incomes stagnated.

It was not as though the crops fetched higher prices. These factors added up to a scenario in which farmers—a bulk of who subsist on small and marginal holdings—were back to surviving at subsistence levels without the luxury of possessing disposable incomes.

Was the Centre oblivious to the trend that the rural hinterland was as much part of the “demographic dividend” and that its youths, born to the peasantry, had as strong economic and social aspirations as their urban peers?

Centre stage

That farming and the farmer have embedded themselves on the centre stage of politics in the prelude to 2019 is apparent from Rahul Gandhi’s daily dare to the prime minister to sign away farm loans nationally just like the Congress-led UPA dispensation had in 2008. The Congress’s new governments were quick off the block in announcing loan waivers, regardless of the fiscal fallout. These governments also have not considered the example of Punjab where the Congress had similarly promised to set aside farm loans before the 2017 elections. 

In power, chief minister Amarinder Singh has only waived aside loans in tranches because the hard realities are that, according to reports, Punjab’s estimated outstanding liabilities of Rs 1,96,040 crore (as on March 31, 2018) constitute 42.1% of its Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) and its borrowing capacity has got excessively stretched.

The real test that awaits the Modi government in its remaining tenure is how it responds to the politics and economics of agrarian distress.

Writing off loans is an obvious option but there are voices within the government that endorse the Niti Ayog’s stated reservations, arguing that not even
50 percent farmers have outstanding loans from institutional sources and that much of the borrowings might be used for personal consumption and not on agriculture. When hard political instincts kick in and winning a second term is the imperative, such points in question could be jettisoned.

(The writer is a political commentator based in New Delhi)

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Farmers’ fury that buried BJP

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