It was the spring of 2015. Farmers across several states had lost their wheat crop to unseasonal rains and hailstorms. In Uttar Pradesh, many farmers died of shock at the sight of their flattened fields. In Mathura, an old farmer told me: “In 1957, I was a student in 8th standard. Our English book had a chapter called ‘The Indian Farmer’. I still remember a line, but have only understood its full importance now: An Indian farmer is born in debt, lives in debt, and dies in debt."
This was less than a year after Narendra Modi had stormed to power in New Delhi riding on the promise of "achhe din" (good days) and "sabka saath sabka vikas" (development for all).
Between then and now, the distress in Indian agriculture has deepened, driven first by successive years of drought, followed by a collapse in crop prices.
Now, the situation is so terrible that not only do farmers not earn enough to sustain themselves, they cannot even take a good night’s sleep for granted, worried that stray cattle will ravage their fields.
Beginning June 2016, as protests by farmers gathered steam, it was expected agrarian distress would become a major election issue in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
After all, more than half of India’s workforce is employed in agriculture.
Farmers were selling milk at prices less than that of bottled water. Farmers were dumping so much tomato that cow shelters in Haryana refused to accept free supplies as aged cattle were suffering from diarrhoea from eating too many tomatoes.
Between 2016 and 2018, as thousands of farmers participated in strikes and marched to cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, it seemed as if farmers were coming together for a common cause. For the first time, a farm widow from drought-hit Marathwada shared the stage with a zamindar (landowner) from Punjab.
However, this nascent coalition faltered electorally. While farm distress and lack of jobs elsewhere were potent factors in assembly elections in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, a fragmented opposition has let the steam dissipate, allowing national security and the need for a strong leadership to become the dominant poll plank. So much so that farmers are now ready to take a hit at a personal cost. The mood in many parts of rural India is that this election is not about the kisan (farmer) but about the nation.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is whipping up passions—in drought-hit Latur in Maharashtra, his speech on Tuesday is a good example of how he manages to do this successfully—the opposition seems to have lost the plot.
What makes it worse is the fragile nature of farmer politics. Many political big shots claim that agriculture is an occupation, but this is mostly limited to the affidavits submitted to the Election Commission.
A country that is home to more than 150 million farm households has failed to elect a single farmer leader to Parliament who has a sway beyond a particular state or a few districts within a state.
The lack of electoral representation is also driven by economics—the reality is that small and marginal farmers are unable to financially support a movement or a leader from among their ranks.
At a time when farmers are desperate to quit farming and move to other occupations with better income security, it is unlikely that they will emerge as a powerful and influential votebank, except in cases such as sugarcane cultivation where the gains from lobbying are significant.
A farmer ceases to be a farmer when he presses the button on the electronic voting machine (EVM), he becomes one with his caste or religion, a farmer friend had told me. “Nation" is the icing on the cake this year.
Sayantan Bera is a national writer at Mint.
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