Agriculture has always been a crucial poll issue in Rajasthan, where about 70% of the population lives in villages.(HT File Photo)
Agriculture has always been a crucial poll issue in Rajasthan, where about 70% of the population lives in villages.(HT File Photo)

Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Farmer issues may play key role in Rajasthan

An upbeat Congress looks to repeat its assembly poll performance, but the BJP says Modi’s national popularity will help it buck the trend
Hindustan Times, Sikar/Jaipur/Alwar | By Chetan Chauhan
UPDATED ON APR 01, 2019 07:29 AM IST

In September 2018, the north-eastern Shekhawati belt of Rajasthan was rocked by a massive farmers’ agitation for loan waivers that built sentiment against then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Three months later, on the back of a loan waiver campaign promise, the Congress swept the region in the assembly elections, winning 20 of the 31 seats, compared to just four in 2013, to storm into power.

But this February, farmers in the belt are on the warpath again, threatening to launch an agitation against the Ashok Gehlot government alleging it has failed to waive entire farm loans and implement the Swaminathan Committee recommendations on declaring minimum support price for farm produce at 1.5 times the input cost.

“The Congress has failed to fulfil its promises; they will have to pay a price in the Lok Sabha polls,” said Amra Ram of the All India Kisan Sabha, which led the September protest.

Agriculture has always been a crucial poll issue in Rajasthan, where about 70% of the population lives in villages, and the Congress’s promise of farm loan waivers within 10 days of forming the government attracted rural voters. The party did better than the BJP in rural Rajasthan with a strike rate of 60% and clear leads in primarily rural districts such as Jodhpur, Barmer, Churu, Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Dausa, Bharatpur and Tonk-Sawai Madhopur.

Sensing that failing to disburse loan waivers before the model code of conduct kicks in could hamper the party’s Lok Sabha prospects, the state government has started handing out certificates for loans taken from the cooperative banks from February 7. Loan waiver for nationalised banks may happen in the Budget after the Lok Sabha polls, state government officials said.

This bifurcation has angered a section of farmers and provided ammunition to the recently defeated BJP. “We will start agitation across Rajasthan to expose that how the Congress has cheated farmers by making a false promise,” said Madan Lal Saini, the BJP’s Rajasthan president.

Amra Ram, who contested the last assembly polls on a Communist Party of India (Marxist) ticket and lost, said the Congress misled the farmers and reminded that the grand old party’s vote share in the assembly polls was just 0.5% more than that of the BJP’s. Congress leader and former MP Subhash Meharia countered him, saying that the government was in the process of waiving the loans and had adopted the Karnataka model, wherein loans taken from cooperative banks were waived first.

Farm loan waiver is a common issue across the length and breadth of the desert state, and one that holds enormous importance for the Congress. In the agrarian belt, from Jhunjhunu to Churu to Sikar, a large number of farmers are waiting for waivers. “We believed in Rahul ji’s [Congress president Rahul Gandhi] promise and if the loan is not waived, we will lose trust in him,” said Nand Kishore Punia, a Sikar-based farmer.

Sitting next to him in Bidoli village, Subhash Gujjar said that with the waivers, they are also waiting for higher MSP for produce as promised by Gandhi for the next harvest season in March-April.

Who has the advantage?

Since 1998, the assembly and the Lok Sabha polls in the state have been held within a span of six months and the party that wins the state assembly has had the edge in the Lok Sabha elections as well. In 2013, the BJP got 163 seats in the 200 member assembly and won all 25 Lok Sabha seats the next year. In 2008, the Congress won 96 seats in assembly and got 20 seats in Lok Sabha in 2009. In 2003, the BJP got 120 seats in state assembly polls and won 21 in the 2004 general elections even though the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) lost to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) nationally.

In 2018, the Congress won 100 assembly seats and the party estimates that it could get up to 20 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP, however, is confident that it will break the trend, riding on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An analysis of Lok Sabha constituency-wise votes polled in the December 2018 elections for the Congress and the BJP showed that the BJP was ahead in 13 Lok Sabha seats and the Congress in 12. Each Lok Sabha seat has eight assembly constituencies.

Jaipur-based political analyst Om Saini said as the people feel the impact of the new government, they are more inclined towards the incumbent government, and it reflects in polling for the Lok Sabha polls

Rajasthan will vote on April 29 and May 6 and the Congress is upbeat after 12 independent legislators decided to support the party for the Lok Sabha polls. The ruling party has announced 19 candidates, including Vaibhav Gehlot, son of chief minister Ashok Gehlot, and the BJP 15, including junior agriculture minister Gajendra Shekhawat. Vaibhav Gehlot and Shekawat are up against each other in Jodhpur, which could be one of the most-watched constituencies in the state.

The BJP is trying to build narrative around Balakot air strike by holding public meetings in areas with a high number of personnel working or retired from the armed forces.

Political analyst Narayan Bareth said there would be some impact of the air strike on the Lok Sabha polls, especially among the urban voters, but its intensity will mellow down as the date of polling comes closer.

BJP spokesperson Mukesh Pareek said the strike is not just a poll issue. “The strike was a brave move of the army to whom the PM gave a free hand. The last Lok Sabha election was to make Narendra Modi PM and know we will be contesting on the work done by Modi,” he said.

Congress spokesperson and Cabinet minister Pratap Singh Khachariyawas said there will be no impact on the Lok Sabha elections as the truth about the Balakot strike is now unraveling. “The issues for the elections are inflation, corruption in Rafale jet deal, demonetisation, GST [Goods and Services Tax] and fuel prices etc,” he said.

The Vasundhara factor

Former chief minister Vasundhara Raje has been the BJP’s face in Rajasthan since 2003, when she became CM for the first time. But after the loss in the 2018 assembly polls, she has been appointed as the party’s national vice-president, restricting her role in state politics. Its impact can be seen on the ground, with the negative sentiment attached to her stint lower than during the 2018 assembly polls when the Congress was attacking her “misrule”.

“Vasundhara ko sabak sikha diya, woh Lok Sabha main mudha nahin hai. 2019 election, Modi ji ke naam pe. [We have taught Vasundhara a lesson, she is not an issue in the Lok Sabha polls. In 2019, the polls will be fought on Modi’s name],” said Ram Niwas, a shopkeeper in Pilani. In Alwar’s Virat Nagar, Adiram Gujjar, had a different take. “Yes, Vasundhara is not a factor but I want to ask what Modi has done for the poor,” he said.

But some BJP leaders say Raje cannot be written off easily.

Caste matrix and history

Rajasthan has had a complex caste dynamic - the Rajputs and the Jats dominated the political sphere for years, but the Meenas, Gujjars and Malis have began flexing their muscles in the past 20 years.

Rajput candidates dominated the first assembly elections in Rajasthan in 1952, winning 54 seats. Brahmins won 22 seats, Jats won 12, Muslims got two and scheduled castes secured 10. In the next assembly elections in 1957, only 27 Rajputs could win. The number of Jats in the assembly increased to 23 and the figure for Muslims and scheduled castes remaining almost same. In 2018, 37 Jats won, six more than in 2013, followed by 17 Rajputs, 10 less than in 2013.

Jats have traditionally been Congress supporters and Rajputs drifted towards the BJP in the mid-1990s with the emergence of former chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Like most Hindi heartland states, caste plays an important role in Rajasthan politics. Jats (9% of the population), Rajputs (6%), Gujjars (5%), Meenas (7%), Meghwals (6%) and Malis (4%) dominate the caste matrix.

Bareth said the party that is able to retain its traditional vote-bank and get enough swing votes from other castes wins the state.

In 2018, he said, the BJP’s traditional Rajput vote-bank drifted away while the Congress retained its Jat and Gujjar votes, visible from results from districts dominated by these castes. So, the challenge for the BJP is to get back its Rajput votes and also align other Other Backward Classes to get a winning combination in 2019.

But this may not be easy considering the caste cauldron is already simmering, with leaders such as Kirori Singh Bainsla, who represents the Gujjars, threatening to start an agitation seeking enhanced reservation for their community.

The desert state is crucial for the BJP’s plans if it plans to repeat its 2014 sweep of the heartland, and the saffron party hopes to channel conversation to PM narendra modi’s governance record. Aware of the prime minister’s connect with the voters, the Congress is banking on its loan waiver and issues of jobs and farm crisis. Only counting day will tell which agenda had greater impact.

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