New Delhi: One of 2018’s biggest developments came toward the end of the year when Assembly election results for five states were announced on December 11.
The Congress, in alliance with the Telugu Desam Party, failed in Telangana and lost Meghalaya from its grip, but those losses were trumped by major victories across the Hindi heartland. The party managed to vanquish the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh — states where the saffron party had been ruling for 15 years — and Rajasthan.
In these three states, that have largely rural population dependent on agriculture, farmer distress became a flashpoint for elections. In the lead up to polls, Congress promised loan waivers for distressed farmers in all three states. In fact in the last two years, parties that promised loan waivers won eight state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka and Gujarat. With the 2019 Lok Sabha elections a few months away, the agrarian crisis is likely to be the political backdrop when India goes to vote.
The year 2018 also saw multiple farmer uprisings — movements mostly associated with farmer unions and the Left — that culminated into thousands of farmers marching for their demands. On 22 February, farmers staged a massive sit-in at the Sikar-Jaipur highway in Rajasthan, blocking the road till their demands of loan waiver and implementation of Swaminathan Commission recommendations were met. Prominent farmer leader, State Secretary for CPIM and All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) vice president Amra Ram was at the forefront of farmer protests in Shekhawati belt of Rajasthan.
Less than a month later on 6 March, about 40,000 farmers marched to Mumbai after walking nearly 200 km on foot. This Kisan Long March, organized by AIKS, culminated at Azad Maidan where farmers put their demands in front of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. They wanted complete implementation of the Rs 34,000 crore loan waiver announced in 2017, implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and compensation for farmers whose cotton crops had suffered damage from bollworm infestation and unseasonal rains.
On October 2, thousands of farmers under the banner of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) marched into the national capital demanding sugarcane payments, loan waivers, power subsidies and pension.
‘Kisan Kranti Padyatra’, or farmers’ revolutionary walk, had started in Haridwar on September 23 and was supposed to end at Kisan Ghat, the memorial site of former Prime Minister and farmer leader Chaudhary Charan Singh, in New Delhi.
Then on 18 November, around 20,000 farmers marched to Mumbai again, walking in from Thane and demanding loan waivers that had not yet been implemented even after the farmers’ rally in March. New Delhi saw a second rally as well when on November 29 close to one lakh farmers marched down the streets of the capital and occupied Ramlila Maidan, intending to proceed to Parliament Street to have their demands heard.
These various agrarian movements across the country have mobilised farmers and, farmer leaders believe, the farmer vote is slowly consolidating. Raju Shetty, Member of Parliament and founder of Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathan, a farmers’ union based in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, believes farm distress is back in national consciousness as a political issue.
“All parties have understood that they need to address farmer concerns ahead of elections. Four out of the five states that went to polls recently were fought and won over farmer issues. There were loan waiver promises in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and in Telangana KCR had announced relief measures for farmers as well,” Shetty told News18. “Rural votes defeated BJP,” he added.
The numbers back Shetty’s claim as well. Agriculture is the source of about 60 to 75 per cent of the rural income in Madhya Pradesh. In a contest that went down the wire, Congress was able to edge out the BJP because of a higher tally of rural seats in its favour. Among 194 rural seats out of a total 230, the Congress managed to win a 100 seats compared to the BJP’S haul of 89. In fact the BJP had a better showing in urban and semi-urban regions, winning 20 seats against Congress’ 14.
In Rajasthan, where about 75 percent of the population resides in rural areas, the Congress again won more rural seats compared to the BJP — 89 to the saffron party’s haul of 60. And again, BJP was the favoured party in urban constituencies, where it won 13 seats compared to Congress’ 10.
In Chhattisgarh, which is 76.76 percent rural, the BJP took a big hit, winning only seven rural seats out of a total 53. The Congress, owing to a strong showing in the entire state had clear wins in rural, semi-urban and urban areas. In the 2013 state polls, the Congress and the BJP had won 26 rural seats each.
Sudhir Panwar, former member of Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission and president of Kisan Jagriti Manch, believes the tide of rural votes is turning. “The rural ecosystem is now largely anti-BJP. The BJP managed to control inflation, so agricultural implements did not get more expensive. But the input price for farmers kept increasing,” Panwar, who is also a member of the Samajwadi Party, said.
According to him, that economic stress on farmers is converting into votes. There was no other issue except farmer anguish that worked overwhelmingly against the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Panwar said. “The decline of housing and real estate sectors in urban areas increased the stress on rural economy that includes farmers and agricultural labourers,” Panwar said.
Farmers, already under considerable debt, saw promised loan waivers as the way out.
“The BJP started the loan waiver trend with UP, despite all objections from the RBI and others. It showed that if the BJP can win over loan waiver, other parties can too,” Panwar said. Other parties followed suit and started including loan waivers in their election manifestos. Panwar believes the popularity and perpetuity of loan waiver promises exists because of the distressing conditions created for the farmer in the past four years. The trend of winning state elections by promising loan waivers has garnered much criticism as well. Waiving off farm loans is putting direct stress on state economy, costing Rs 6,100 crore. Rs 35,000 crore and Rs 18,000 crore to the exchequer in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan respectively.
According to Panwar, loan waiver is becoming a tool to win elections, “but we should not criticise that trend at this moment,” he said. “Loan waivers are an effect, not the cause.”
National president of Swaraj India and prominent farmer leader and political analyst Yogendra Yadav is, however, not convinced about the success rate of loan waivers. “In Karnataka, the BJP too had promised to waive off loans. But they did not win. It’s not necessarily true that any party that promises loan waivers will win. But it’s true that a party has to prioritise farmer issues. Loan waiver is a way to do that,” Yadav told News18.
Which leads us to the question: are farmers are becoming a constituency? Are they beginning to setting aside political affiliations and caste equations and voting as one block? Panwar believes so. “The farmer is becoming a constituency. Nobody has organised it. Agrarian issues and the economic crisis has brought farmers together,” Panwar said. According to him, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be a farmers’ election.
Amara Ram, CPI(M) leader who was at the forefront of farmers’ agitation in Sikar, Rajasthan, also thinks there has been a shift in political conversation about farmers.
“Farmers are becoming more aware. Various farmer unions have come together over the last five years. This has led to farmers coming at the centre of political consciousness. All parties are talking about farmers, but only because they want their votes,” Ram said.
Yadav, however, believes the farmers’ movement is not quite there yet. According to him, farmers have been a ‘potential constituency’ in India for long. “On paper, farmers are the majority,” he said. “The challenge to convert that ‘potential majority’ to a ‘real majority’ remains.”
Yadav said the farmer movements of the past year have worked in that direction.
“Currently, it seems possible that farmers can become a constituency. It’s just a possibility and it has shaken the throne (of Indian politics). Imagine what will happen the day farmers actually become a constituency?”
Sanjay Kumar, Director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), gave a more conservative account of farmer vote consolidation ahead of general elections. According to him, it would be wrong to conclude that the BJP performed badly because farmers didn’t vote for them. “In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, farmers’ vote was more or less equally divided. Despite farmers’ movements, the vote share has not shifted to a great extent. In Madhya Pradesh it’s only down by 2 per cent and in Rajasthan it’s down by 5 to 6 per cent,” Kumar said.
Kumar also said various farmer marches in New Delhi, Mumbai and other places were not enough, an indication which suggests that farmers are going to be united in 2019 election. “I don’t see us heading towards a ‘farmer vote’ similar to the ‘Dalit vote’ or the ‘Muslim vote’, at least not in this election.
Farmers still have their caste and religious identities, which are far stronger than the identity of belonging to a particular occupation,” Kumar said.