Lucknow/Amethi/Agra: The face of Sri Ram, a marginal farmer who doubles up as a village barber, sinks as he shows his bank passbook. The Sunday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a direct cash transfer scheme for farmers in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur, about two weeks before the dates of general elections were announced on 10 March, Sri Ram’s account was credited with 2,000, a sizeable sum for someone who struggles to make 50 on an average day.

The credit was reversed the same day, Ram found out later from the bank but he wasn’t told why. The disappointment on Ram’s face shows that small sums of money do make a difference when incomes fluctuate from one day to the next. Under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme (PM-KISAN) announced in the interim budget in February, small and marginal farm households owning less than five acres of land are eligible for a direct cash assistance of 6,000 every year, credited to bank accounts in three instalments.

“For a farmer struggling to make ends meet any support is better than nothing, but the timing of the scheme which was launched just before the elections revealed the government’s true intentions," said Rakesh Singh, also a farmer, standing next to Ram. PM-KISAN is similar to how politicians bribe voters on the eve of elections, complained Singh, adding, the handout will not even cover the irrigation costs for growing an acre of wheat crop.

Value of cash

This discussion is taking place on the sidelines of a public hearing organized by a social worker in Jais-Bahadurpur in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi. Among the motley crowd are a group of scheduled caste women who are yet to receive the money. They too are disappointed but are more worried that their names are missing from the subsidized food distribution scheme.

Some distance away from the public hearing, residents of Amethi’s Pure Dhana Pandey village, who are mostly farmers and daily wagers, defended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new scheme for farmers, after a host of other schemes, from soil health card to crop insurance, failed to make a mark. “Cash deposits are better than spending money on schemes… we have to bribe local officials to benefit from government schemes. Even bank officials take commissions for advancing (subsidized) farm loans," said Rajesh Kumar, a potato grower.

The PM-Kisan cash transfer scheme launched on 24 February aims to benefit over 120 million farm households across India, and is being rolled out at a breakneck speed to ensure that farmers receive the first instalment before they cast their votes in the Lok Sabha elections starting 11 April. The scheme is expected to cost 20,000 crore in 2018-19 and 75,000 crore in 2019-20.

“In Uttar Pradesh up to 20 million farmers could benefit…and so far about 10.4 million farmers have received the money," said Soraj Singh, director of agriculture in the state. “If we convert the in-kind allocations for farmers under state schemes they get 2 per day per family, with PM-Kisan they are getting 17 per day in cash… bank accounts with tiny amounts like 200-300 are being credited by 2,000 in a go," said Singh, defending the scheme against criticism that the assistance is paltry.

Major farmer organizations have criticized the scheme calling it a “bribe" ahead of elections while politicians like Congress president Rahul Gandhi termed it an “insult" to farmers. Experts and economists too said cash transfers may curtail future public investments in agriculture, like in irrigation or research.

However, the majority of farmers in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra, Amethi, Kannauj and Barabanki districts, where Mint travelled last week, perceive the scheme differently, although on ground only a handful of families said they have received the money. Mint chose to travel to these districts in central Uttar Pradesh, which are dominated by small land holding farmers, to understand the economic and electoral impact of PM-Kisan, unlike western parts of the state where farmers owe their relative prosperity to sugarcane cultivation.

Take for instance the opinion of Ram Prasad Yadav, a small farmer from Barabanki: “Is 6,000 nothing? At least we can buy salt and chilies, spend on school books and shoes, buy some clothes… farmers may not vote for Modi for this money but there are other reasons to vote for him."

Life after Pulwama

This “other" reason, an apparent surge of nationalism, has seemingly possessed the rural voter in these parts, be it a young college student about to enter the job market, or a farmer staying awake the entire night to guard his crop from stray cattle. “This election is not about the kisan, it is about the nation," said 30-year-old Radheshyam Nishad from Agra, when asked how the state government and the centre have helped farmers to get better crop prices or manage recurrent weather risks. What about the stray cattle menace created by a ban on slaughter and risks in transportation of unproductive cattle? “We cannot expect the Prime Minister to come and guard our crop."

The majority of farmers Mint spoke to contend that compensation for crop loss or the state-initiated loan waiver did not reach them due to corrupt bank or local government officials. The stray cattle menace is one of their own making, since it is they who have abandoned cows. The farmers and daily wagers in these villages admit that the federal government has largely ignored their plight but the dissatisfaction which was palpable a few months ago has been replaced by admiration and a sense of pride. More importantly, they are unwilling to blame the Prime Minister for their troubles.

With a surge of majoritarian nationalism following the terrorist attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama and the air strikes in Pakistan by the Indian Air Force, pressing ground realities, be it the persistent fall in crop prices, stagnating rural wages and lack of jobs, have taken a back seat.

So when a farmer from Agra criticized the Yogi Adityanath-led state government for scuttling cattle trade and put forth his losses in the dairy business, he was jokingly booed—forcing him to leave in a hurry. His departure gave way to conversations which quickly turned communal.

The new arithmetic

The ground situation is in sharp contrast to how farmers held the Prime Minister accountable for depressed incomes and rising debts ahead of the state elections in December, which Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) lost in three agriculturally dominant states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

Yet, there are those who are scathing. “Modi is giving 2,000 to farmers to do wah-wah (sing his praises)," said Ram Prakash Yadav from Barabanki. “What help is 2,000 when I am selling milk at a loss every day?" But Yadav’s is a lone voice: his son and neighbour sitting next to him felt Modi should return to power.

“The opposition has the arithmetic in its favour in Uttar Pradesh, but it has no narrative in place… opposition parties are yet to begin their campaign while people in villages are fed on a daily diet of nationalism and communal rhetoric," said a Lucknow-based political analyst who did not wish to be named. The reference is to the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance which is hoping to pull down the Modi-led BJP’s tally in the state by consolidating scheduled caste, Yadav and Muslim votes.

In the 2014 general elections, the BJP won in a record 71 out of 80 Parliament seats in Uttar Pradesh, and a poor performance in 2019 can stall the re-election bid of Narendra Modi. In fact, at an all-India level the BJP won in an overwhelming 178 of the 342 rural Lok Sabha seats in 2014.

To repeat the 2014 performance, Modi will be banking on the support of farmers like 62-year-old Hanuman Prasad Yadav from Barabanki. Yadav is acutely aware of his fragile economic status. This season, a part of his potato harvest was destroyed. The fertilizer he buys now costs more. Diesel for irrigation and farm implements is a drain on his finances. Yet, he admits farm issues will not determine his vote. “Which previous government has worked for farmers? Modi is honest than others, he is not corrupt. Name one political leader who can match his stature… his government could have done better but how much can you expect one person to do?" Such views were voiced by other farmers that Mint met over a three-day reporting assignment.

“The popular perception of Narendra Modi is that of a spotless man… given the ground realities, voters would have been far more critical if there was anyone else at the helm," said Sanjay Kumar, director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. “Post Pulwama it is only expected that the BJP will push the “nation comes first" narrative during its campaign pushing real issues of farm distress or joblessness behind. In such a situation, the bickering between the Congress and other regional parties has disappointed voters who were looking for an alternative." Kumar predicts that overall the BJP may still end up losing 60 to 70 seats from its 2014 tally of 282 seats.

Atul Pandey, 21, from Amethi is a farmer’s son and a first-time voter. He thinks Modi’s bold “videsh niti" and “teaching Pakistan a lesson" will earn him another term in office. “Do you know he received the Seoul Peace Prize," he asks, completely missing the irony of it all.


How farm issues fell by the wayside

Between 2014 and 2016 when India reeled under a protracted drought, and 2017 to 2019 when farmers took to the streets seeking better crop prices and loan waivers, agrarian distress has remained a permanent feature in the Narendra Modi regime. As farmers organizations mobilized themselves in large numbers and hit the streets, opposition parties were quick to tap into the latent anger in India’s hinterland.

In the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan last year, the opposition Congress pitched the crisis in agriculture coupled with paucity of jobs as major poll issues and promised loan waivers to farmers.

However, in the aftermath of the Pulwama attacks, the narrative seems to have changed from what the country can do for farmers and its unemployed youth to what these disadvantaged groups can do for the country.

With Congress president Rahul Gandhi still harping on the Rafale jet deal, a controversy which finds little resonance in rural India, Narendra Modi has tried to turn these accusations on its head by launching a “main bhi chowkidar" campaign. In this din, a fragmented opposition is fast losing the plot vis-a-vis real problems: from the crisis in the sugarcane economy to growing losses in dairy farming.

In Uttar Pradesh, the menace of stray cattle is eating into already stressed incomes, but farmers are being made to believe losing a part of one’s crop and much of one’s sleep is a minor sacrifice for the sake of religion. The current situation also underlines the fault lines in India’s farmer movements. It may be tough to organize a protest march, but it is still far more difficult to make farmers vote on issues related to agriculture.

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