When farmers go to vote in an economy steeped in farm distress, the outcome can be cruel and capricious. Three recent examples should illustrate this point.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress party emerged the single largest party in the November 2018 assembly elections and its promise of a farm-loan waiver was considered one of the swing factors. In the 2018 assembly polls, Congress won 63 of the 126 assembly seats in rural parts of Madhya Pradesh. But five months later, Congress could hold its lead only on 15 of those 63 constituencies in the Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress had also won a stunning 68 seats in the 90-member Chhattisgarh assembly in November, leaving the BJP a distant second with 15. Two promises—a farm-loan waiver and ₹2,500 per quintal minimum support price for paddy—helped the Congress rout the BJP which in 2013 had assured ₹2,100 per quintal but kept the promise in only the last two years. Come May, and the Congress, which should have won at least 9 of the 11 seats in Chhattisgarh going by its overwhelming performance in the assembly polls, could get only 2, while the BJP won 9.
Contrast this with Maharashtra, another state with a deep-rooted agrarian crisis. More than half the state (28,524 out of 40,000 villages) is in the grip of a drought declared in October 2018. Of these villages, nearly 15,000 are being supplied water through tankers contracted by the government, according to the figures released by the chief minister’s office. To be more precise, two of the four- and-a-half years of the Devendra Fadnavis government have witnessed a severe drought. The BJP-led government drew flak for not pro-actively seeking Election Commission clearance to grant exemption from the model code of conduct for drought relief work. Yet, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance nearly repeated its 2014 election performance in the Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra, winning 41 of 48 seats. The loss on seven seats was largely due to local factors and not necessarily drought, a BJP state minister said.
“There is no question of diluting the intensity of drought in Maharashtra, but it certainly did not have a negative impact on our electoral prospects. We won in Marathwada and Vidarbha, the two regions worst-affected by the drought and agrarian crisis. We have done well in north Maharashtra, Khandesh, and those parts of western and south Maharashtra like Ahmadnagar, Madha and Solapur. This does not mean drought had no effect. But it probably means that either drought-relief measures have been effective or the farmers have endorsed us for some other things," the minister said, requesting anonymity.
A state farm sector expert and a former bureaucrat said the victory of BJP-Shiv Sena does not mean the agrarian crisis has been solved. “This government did take some measures like expansion of the crop insurance scheme, increase in the amount of compensation and direct monetary assistance for damage to crops, some tinkering with the agriculture market laws though not exactly radical reforms, and finally the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana. While these are welcome, more reforms and long-term steps are needed to address the root causes of the crisis which is lack of profitability in agriculture, restricted availability of markets and market linkages for the farmers, little investment by the private sector in agriculture, and high cost of production due to systemic issues such as lack of irrigation, timely access to formal and low-interest credit, and awareness. The Modi government in its second term must read this mandate well and address these issues if it wants to return this favour to the farmers," the farm expert said, requesting anonymity.
Election-related travel across the three states bared the severity of India’s agrarian crisis. Everywhere, farmers pointed out long-standing problems and temporary setbacks: poor access to markets and formal credit, scarce advance information on weather and remunerative prices, stranglehold of commission agents, patchy irrigation, volatile farm produce prices, unreliability and inefficiency of the minimum support price scheme, and chronic droughts. Among temporary setbacks, farmers blamed demonetization, excess yields due to government policies—like Maharashtra’s 2016-17 tur bounty that hammered prices and exposed the inadequacies of the MSP system, and delayed payments. Vijay Jawandhiya, a veteran farm expert and activist in Maharashtra, says the central government had not been able to explain the benefits of demonetization for the poor and farmers. “What did that arbitrary measure bring to the farmers and the poor? We don’t know yet," Jawandhiya said.
Farm protests erupted during the tenure of the Modi government. In fact, June 2017 turned out to be a watershed month as two BJP-ruled states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh saw violent protests. In Maharashtra’s Puntamba village in Ahmadnagar ditrict, farmers launched an unprecedented strike, disrupting supplies of milk, fruits, vegetables, and food grains to cities. The protests turned violent in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur where six farmers died in police firing in June 2017. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had till then refused a farm loan waiver, crumbled under the pressure brought upon by the strike, that received nation-wide attention with images of farmers dumping milk and farm produce on streets. In June, Fadnavis announced a ₹34,022 crore farm loan waiver, sparking similar demands in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. Maharashtra itself had previously come under intense pressure after Modi himself promised a farm loan waiver during the campaign for Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in February 2017. Between April 2017 and December 2018, as many as eight states had declared farm loan waivers worth ₹1.9 trillion, as per a Mint report, with Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra accounting for a large chunk of this write-off.
Yet, the BJP has been voted back with even greater numbers, and its performance in rural parts has been impressive. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, voters punished Congress for the slow implementation of the loan waiver and backed the BJP.
The BJP may have won at the hustings despite the angst in the farm sector, but the agrarian crisis and its deep-rooted causes continue to fester. Jawandhiya expects Modi 2.0 to at least come up with a road map that would realise the ambitious target of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.