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Farm dissent poses huge threat for BJP in upcoming elections

A rough patch in agriculture has thrust rural economy and farmers’ issue on to the political centre stage, increasing troubles for BJP-ruled states -- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh -- awaiting elections.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2018 07:46 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Indore, Hindustan Times
Farm dissent,BJP,Elections
Farmer organisations that came together in the aftermath of the Mandsaur protests are preparing for a fresh spell of agitation. (HT File)

Dressed like a farmer himself, a taupe shawl drawn over his shoulders, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, a sort of rebel-within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), let out a throaty war cry at a farmers’ rally in Madhya Pradesh’s Narsinghpur on January 11.

“Those in the seat of power mustn’t think we are small in numbers and inconsequential. We will force those in power to bow down. We’ll shake things up. We’ll unseat them.”

Madhya Pradesh — which promotes itself as the ‘heart of India’ and is home to the Pench national park, the setting of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book — has seen some stupendous farm growth rates. But the state’s image of being a hub of rural prosperity fell apart in June 2017, when the central city of Mandsaur became the flashpoint of violent protests.

Angry over falling prices of their produce, farmers announced a 10-day siege in cities such as Sehore, Bhopal and Indore. Five farmers of the Patidar caste, the community behind the campaign against the BJP government in Gujarat, died in police firing in Mandsaur, a wealthy belt that grows legally-sanctioned opium, wheat, soyabean, oilseeds and lentils.

A rough patch in India’s agriculture has thrust the rural economy and farmers’ issue on to the political centre stage, posing a key political risk in BJP-ruled states. Three of them — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — will face elections this year.

Agrarian distress was responsible for the BJP’s diminished rural tally in the Gujarat elections last month. With farm issues back on the national radar, the BJP is watching out for the possibility of rural dissatisfaction-fuelled anti-incumbency shaking its formidable rural-support base.

Nearly 72.4% of Madhya Pradesh’s population is rural. About 49% of land-owning farmers had voted the ruling NDA in the 2014 general election, according to data from Lokniti. The BJP-led formation had also won the support of a third of landless tenant cultivators.

Across states, falling rural incomes due to a combination of unfavourable global factors, bad weather and unprofitable prices has spawned a new wave of protests. There is a near consensus around two key demands. First, farmers want assured returns that are 1.5 times the cultivation costs, which translate into a 50% profit. Second, they want a complete write-off of all farmers’ loans. The first demand isn’t hard to justify — it was, after all, part of the BJP’s official poll manifesto in 2014. The Modi government has also declared that it will double farmers’ income in six years.

“One of our sister organisations in Punjab went to court seeking an implementation of this promise (50% profits). In its response in an affidavit in January 2015, the Modi government has said it was not in a position to do so. This is cheating,” said Shiv Kumar Sharma alias Kakaji, one of the main leaders behind the 10-day Mandsaur agitation and the chief of Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangaha. He was arrested during the Mandsaur crackdown.

Kakaji was referring to the Centre’s response in February 2015 to a plea filed by the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association. In it, the Centre said a mec- hanical linkage between MSP and cost of production may be counter-productive. “The Centre said a 50% hike on MSP on cost may distort the market,” Chengal Reddy, the petitioner, told HT. Sharma’s colleague Binod Anand says the organisation has set February 1 as the “deadli- ne” for the government to meet its dem- ands. The next stop: a protest in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on February 23, he says.

Madhya Pradesh’s farm fortunes began dipping in 2013-14, when farm GDP contracted 1.14% due to a drought. The next year, farm growth rose 4.6% but slowed again to 1.7% in 2015-16. In 2016-17, growth shot up 22.39%, the result of a statistical ‘base effect’ due to poor growth the previous years and a bumper harvest. However, disruptions caused by demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and services tax meant prices crashed.

The state is looking to stem rural angst with a slew of sops. This includes an unprecedented flagship scheme, Mukhya Mantri Bhavantar Bhugtaan Yojana, to directly pay farmers a part of the prices they fail to recover for their produce from the markets, something never tried before in the country. But farmer organisations have made it the main target of their attacks.

The scheme pays only the difference between the prevailing modal price of a crop and what farmers manage to sell for. The modal price of a crop denotes the price level at which a majority of transactions take place. It therefore serves as an average price. It doesn’t pay the higher minimum support prices, or the floor price, set by the Centre. Farm leaders allege the scheme benefits traders more than farmers. Farmers’ organisations that came together in the aftermath of the Mandsaur protests are preparing for a fresh spell of agitation in the year ahead. Sinha, a detractor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has promised his support and time to them.

The Gadarwara rally attended by Sinha and former Union farm minister Sompal Shastri, who doesn’t belong to any party now, was called to highlight the plight of farmers nearby whose land was acquired for a power plant.

New-age tactics

The issues may be rooted in agricultural prices but the battle in Madhya Pradesh is a political one. Anand claims they aren’t fighting on partisan lines and it’s “difficult to predict” what “political impact” their movement will have in Madhya Pradesh’s elections. “But leaders of many political parties are in touch with us,” he admitted.

The Harda-based Aam Kisan Unio is however open about bringing about a regime change if the current government doesn’t accept its demand.

One of its leaders, Kedar Shankar Sirohi, is a social-media savvy activist who has a Bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a Master’s in agricultural economics. Sirohi says he founded his organisation in 2011 to create an independent, apolitical farmers’ union as some of the bigger farmer groups were directly affiliated to either the Congress or the BJP.

“We are non-party but we are not non-political,” Sirohi, a farmer who grows wheat and soyabean, in his Harda farm says. Asked to explain his intriguing comment, Sirohi says farmers’ issues need political solutions. In this new-age farmer mobilisation, social media is a handy tool.

When the Mandsaur agitation happened, Sirohi says, the chief minister (Shivraj Singh Chouhan) pointed to “jeans-clad protesters to say they weren’t real farmers”. “He doesn’t know how young farmers look. Today, farmers have one hand on their steering wheel and the other on the mobile (phone)”.

Catchy sloganeering on Facebook and WhatsApp is drafting support. “Those who live by the sword die by it. This is a government of slogans and social media, and we will discredit it through social media and slogans,” Sirohi says.

The Aam Kisan Union has attacked the Bhavantar price-deficit payment scheme as “byapariyon ka poshan, kisano ka soshan” or “nourishment for traders, exploitation of farmers”. “Our slogan is catchier,” laughs Bhopal-based Irfan Jafri, a farm leader who runs the Kisan Jagriti Sangathan. “We are calling the scheme ‘election ka collection.”

Sirohi says joblessness among educated children of farmers has become a major social anxiety. It’s delaying marriages, he says. “I am a farmer, but our children don’t want to do farming. This election could be worse than Gujarat for the BJP,” says Anand Bajaj, a well-off farmer from Devas.

Sirohi and his colleagues have started an online campaign, asking farmers to stop making loan repayments. They are calling it a “non-cooperation movement”. Every farmer who enrols has to display a slogan on his house walls, pledging his support. Jafri has posted a picture on WhatsApp of 30-year-old Chain Singh Lodhi from Raisen district’s Jamunia village standing next to his house with a pledge written in bold, blue paint that has been widely forwarded.

The farmers seem confident about their political strategy. Sirohi says concentrating on electoral seats where the BJP is entrenched would be a waste of time. “Of the 230 seats, the BJP wins by a small margin is about 60-70 seats. That’s where we will put up our fight.”

First Published: Jan 22, 2018 07:41 IST