Even as the proverbial monsters monsoon and market turned benign for the otherwise harried farmers this season, the sons of the soil are getting to watch with amusement a ludicrous spectacle of competitive politics demanding a farm loan waiver that is clearly on the cards.
While a high decibel chorus for loan waiver began in early 2005 with the incidence of farm suicides rising menacingly in western Vidarbha in Maharashtra, what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh granted in July 2006 was an interest waiver and loan restructuring for the region's six districts along with 25 districts spread in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.
In the 18 long months after the relief package, the suicides continued - and with it the loan waiver demand. But the central government, in a dilemma whether to grant it selectively or across the nation, dithered until recently when it appeared to have made up its mind to dole out concrete relief to needy farmers all over India.
The first signal about the dye having been cast came from none other than the one who was steadfast in his refusal to grant a loan waiver - Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.
A few days before the winter session of the Maharashtra legislature in November, he proclaimed at a farmers' rally in Vidarbha's Akola district headquarters that it was time farmers were freed from debt.
Pawar's tongue-in-cheek remark took the state's main opposition parties - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena - completely off guard.
Realising that the Congress and Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the ruling coalition constituents both in the state and in New Delhi, could gain in the next election from the loan waiver rather than being punished for the farm suicides in the preceding years, the opposition is now preparing to snatch the credit for the dole from them.
Going a step ahead, Pawar told his party workers in neighbouring Amravati that a debt relief package was in the final stage even as in Yavatmal, 100 kms away, former union minister Mohan Dharia asked his government to announce a loan waiver across the country or face electoral defeat.
On the opening day of its national executive meeting in New Delhi two days later, the BJP called for a special Parliament session to discuss the plight of farmers, taking forward the loan waiver refrain of party president Rajnath Singh's karj mutki yatra in Vidarbha earlier in January.
Not to be left behind, the BJP's alliance partner Shiv Sena, which had taken out a foot-march during the state legislature session in Nagpur in November, held a ghantanaad (sound the gong) agitation all over Maharashtra on Tuesday.
While the two parties were as vociferous over the issue last year as they are now, the aggression appears to have turned to anxiety as they see that the Congress and the NCP might actually gain from the soon-to-be announced farm relief package.
The BJP-Shiv Sena combine's anxiety was palpable when its members tried hard to embarrass Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh over his inability to announce a loan waiver on his own during his reply to the protracted legislative debate on the issue.
Deshmukh, on the other hand, deftly wriggled out of the tight spot. Pointing to Pawar's Akola speech and a meeting convened by Manmohan Singh, he told the house that his government was ready to bear its share of the loan waiver burden in the package that the central government was about to announce.
Now, even as the saffron parties are straining their nerves to invent a strategy to exploit the farm suicides issue to their electoral advantage, Pawar has virtually laid down a potent campaign theme for the Congress-NCP combine to counter the opposition attack.
Claiming that late Indira Gandhi invested in the agriculture sector for the first time, Pawar told NCP workers in Amravati that he raised the agriculture department funds during the United Progressive Alliance regime from Rs 40 billion bequeathed by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to a respectable Rs 190 billion.
Talking like a farm leader, Pawar pointed out that while the total credit available to the vast multitude of farmers (even when 60 per cent of them are out of the credit net) is a paltry Rs 800 billion, a handful of industrialists get Rs 3,500 billion.
"We have decided to raise the farm credit component to Rs 2,200 billion; the loan waiver package is in final stages and the centre has talked to all the chief ministers about it," he said.
While wanting to go on an offensive against the "anti farmer" government in New Delhi and in the state, the BJP and the Shiv Sena will have to put up a defence of its NDA regime against the allegations levelled not only by Pawar but also by some farm activists.
Holding the policies adopted by the NDA regime as much responsible for the farmers' plight as those by others, agriculture expert Vijay Jawandhia recalls that a record 1.1 million cotton bales were imported during the NDA regime leading to a drastic drop in the prices of domestic cotton.
"The NDA government brought down the import duty on cotton to 10 per cent while raising that on sugar to 60 per cent, on wheat to 50 per cent and on edible oils to 90 per cent", Jawandhia told IANS.
Farmers who are getting up to a good Rs 2,700 per quintal for their cotton and over Rs 2,000 per quintal for soybean, thanks to a bountiful monsoon and favourable market this season, and looking forward to loan waiver are watching the credit grabbing game being played in their name.
(Shyam Pandharipande can be contacted at email@example.com )