Farm stir Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s big test before polls
In October 2016 when the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh held the fifth edition of its MP Global Investment Summit in Indore, representatives from industry and government spoke highly of the state’s “spectacular agriculture story”.
Chouhan told delegates that the state had recorded an average agriculture growth rate of 20%, the highest in the country, in the last three years. Madhya Pradesh, he said, had received four “Krushi Karman” awards—given by the centre to states that do the best in helping raise India’s foodgrain production. And he contrasted this performance with the state’s negative agriculture growth in 2003—the year the BJP took Madhya Pradesh from the Congress.
Seven months on, the afterglow from this farm story seems to be fading. After farmers’ protests in Mandsaur-Neemuch region in the first week of June that resulted in the killing of six farmers, Chouhan’s cultivated image of a farmer-friendly chief minister has taken a beating.
Today, Chouhan, who became chief minister in 2005, is facing perhaps the most serious challenge yet to hopes of winning a fourth term in 2018. The Congress, out in the wilderness since 2003, seems to be getting its act together and has deployed its full firepower—from vice-president Rahul Gandhi to its possible chief ministerial candidate and MP Jyotiraditya Scindia—ever since the protests broke out.
Last week, Scindia sat on a 72-hour dharna in Bhopal to demand justice for farmers. In a significant move, Congress general secretary and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh announced at the Scindia protest that the old guard in Madhya Pradesh Congress would take a back seat and allow the younger generation represented by Scindia to take the lead.
Farm activists who are leading the protest, politicians from both the BJP and Congress, and former Madhya Pradesh government officials say the farm unrest has been “politically damaging” and its actual cost would depend on how Chouhan moves from here on. “The short-term political damage has been done and it cannot be undone now. The long-term impact would depend on what Chouhan does in the 16 months to the assembly election in 2018,” a former Madhya Pradesh bureaucrat said on the phone. Requesting anonymity, this farm sector expert said the unrest did have anti-social elements but a “message had gone out that not everything is so rosy about agriculture in Madhya Pradesh”.
“After all these years of eye-popping agriculture growth that Chouhan himself trumpeted at each forum, you suddenly have farmers rioting in the state. Not all of it can be engineered. There are issues that have been pushed under the carpet for long. Some of them have erupted and agriculture in Madhya Pradesh is suddenly under scrutiny. The days of lofty claims are gone and a difficult phase has begun for Chouhan,” the expert said.
A BJP activist in Harda, central MP, where a peaceful farm protest began much before it took a violent turn in Mandsaur, said Chouhan “miscalculated and mismanaged” the stir. “If MP was really a great performer in agriculture, why did he make so many announcements after farmers protested? He is not a nausikhiya (novice) CM. He has been around for more than a decade and should have handled these issues before,” the BJP activist said requesting anonymity. This BJP activist pointed out that Chouhan’s government had introduced Section 34 in Madhya Pradesh Town and Country Planning Act of 1973 to “effectively nullify the provision in the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 that says that compensation for the land acquired in urban areas must be double the market price”.
“This Section virtually took away the right of land owners to challenge the award of compensation given by urban development authorities. This Section was brought in to allow urban bodies to acquire land on the outskirts of cities and farmers protested against this,” the BJP activist said. After the farm unrest, the BJP government has decided to remove this section from the act.
Amrut Patel, Harda district president of RSS-affiliate Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and one of the founding members of Aam Kisan Union that led these protests, predicted the unrest will have a serious political impact. “Even now, there is no positive sentiment for Congress but people may just vote against Chouhan if they feel he is not actually the farmer-friendly chief minister he claims to be,” Patel said.