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Will Farmers Vote as One Bloc? The Question That Will Dictate 2019 Battle Plans

Will Farmers Vote as One Bloc? The Question That Will Dictate 2019 Battle Plans

Experts suggest that it will likely depend on an interplay of agricultural factors, market forces and state policy

New Delhi: On November 29, farmers from across the country put their differences aside and marched to Delhi, their demands threaded together by the crippling agrarian distress. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, political parties across ideologies are left grappling with one question: will the farmers become a united voting bloc?

If the Assembly elections are anything to go by, the parties aren’t taking any chances. In Rajasthan, for instance, the Congress promised to waive off all agriculture-related loans “within 10 days of being elected” and said that it will provide loans at “simple” and “easy to pay (interest) rates”, while the BJP focused on farmers income — as per Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of doubling farmers income by 2022 — promising to expand the disbursal of co-operative loans for agriculture by providing Rs 1 lakh crore worth loans over five years.

The focus on farmers in election manifestos and campaigns isn’t unusual. But with close to 60 percent of the population engaged in farming, an AICC post-bearer explained, “The situation right now is very different. The agrarian crisis in our country right now is unprecedented since 1947. Moreover, farmers are protesting in an organised manner. Drought and unpredictable monsoons mean that our traditional systems of agriculture haven’t been able to keep up and this will have a massive impact on elections. The question, however, is whether this will supersede other identities which influence voting — ideology, caste, religion.”

At the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, 54 years after Lal Bahadur Shastri addressed a public gathering and coined the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, protesting farmers left behind a note: “We are sorry. This march must have caused inconvenience to you. We are farmers. Troubling you is not our motive. We ourselves are disturbed. We have come a long way to make the government and you listen to us.”

The government, on its part, appears to be listening, as is everyone else.

Voter’s bloc, But Unconsolidated

Political analyst Sajjan Kumar of People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based NGO that prepared a report on Madhya Pradesh, ahead of state elections explained that until the 1970s, before the “domineering advent of caste and religion-based identity politics”, farmers were definitely a voting bloc, but not necessarily consolidated.

Instead, he argued, that farmers were differentiated along class lines — landless labourers, poor peasants, small peasants and the rich peasant. ““It’s important to note that differentiation along class lines was not subservient to their caste and religious identity. In a nutshell, the farmers until 1970 were a socio-political constituency, albeit differentiated by class,” he said, adding that the 1980s saw the advent of caste and religion-centric identity, with class virtually vanishing as a category.

“Correspondingly, farmers lost their centrality as a constituency in political and electoral calculation, the bearing of which was reflected in public policy as well,” said Kumar.

In the 1990s, the farmers’ union that had the ability to mobilise also began veering towards the cultural markers of caste and religion. “Hence, the domineering semantics of OBC, SC, ST, Upper Caste, minority etc acquired precedence, thereby further relegating the centrality of 'peasant identity' to the margins,” he said.

Many farmers agree.

“For decades, we have been divided. Whether it is religion, whether it’s caste or even the crop we grow. We have been told that the sugarcane farmer in Uttar Pradesh has nothing in common with the potato farmer in Bengal. But that isn’t true. We are all facing the same problem. No farmer wants Ayodhya, we want our loans to be waived off and increased support prices,” said Prakash Kumar from Bihar's Nalanda.

Hanna Mollah, senior Left leader and the convenor of All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), an umbrella body of 208 farmers’ and agricultural workers, said: “The agrarian distress in our country is unprecedented and is likely to be a major issue in the 2019 elections. To counter it, the first step of the government has to be waiving off loans and creating a National Debt Relief Commission for farmers.”

A senior BJP leader, however, differed. “No government has done as much for the farmer as we have. Our entire government is geared towards focusing on the incomes of the farmer. There are issues, but they are state-specific and the Union government is working hand-in-hand to address them,” he said.

RSS-backed Bharatiya Kisan Sangh had also boycotted the ‘politics’ behind the farmers’ protest. National secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Mohini Mohan, told News18.com then that, “This is a political agitation and not about farmer’s issues. The last time we were able to reach some positive results with the state government in Madhya Pradesh, but the planned violence spoiled the efforts. There are politically motivated elements that plan violence, and this one has been organised keeping 2019 elections in mind. We don’t want to be part of it for this political motivation.”

BKS does not agree with all the demands being raised by the farmers’ organisation. “We are not in favour of this demand of loan waiver. In the past, it has not given any concrete result. Our demands are of profitable Minimum Support Price,” Mohan had said.

But experts like Kumar argued that an interplay of the market forces, agricultural factors and the state’s public policy would be key, with farmers emerging as a strong constituency in some regions while the cultural markers of caste and region reign in others.

Agricultural Factors, Market Forces and State Policy

Kumar presented three scenarios regarding the viability of farmers as a single bloc, taking into account that following demonetisation, the cash-based economy of rural India had virtually been destroyed.

There is a scenario, which he pointed out, was seen in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh where agriculture is linked with the market. “Recently, there has been a dip in prices for farmers’ commercial crops and a whopping increase in the price of agrarian inputs a farmer has to invest. The latter includes fertilizer, seeds, irrigation and daily wages for labourers. In this case, one sees the emergence of agrarian distress,” said Kumar.

This gloomy scenario due to incertitude of market linkages with agriculture got further aggravated by policy interventions like demonetisation.

“Naturally, the farmers here were at the receiving end due to combined intervention of market and state policy, thereby nurturing a sense of consolidation around their occupational identity,” he said.

In this scenario, the rural life and its dynamics are increasingly revolving around occupational identity of farmers who are showing solidarity with each other across the state. “Thus, farmer’s identity is dominating their caste and religious one as far as political dynamics are concerned,” Kumar said.

Demonetisation and market intervention forged new realities for the farmers which created a new kind of solidarity, which according to some experts is different from the class-differentiated ‘peasant identity’ of 1970s.

This proved key in Gujarat, for instance, where the BJP suffered its biggest setback in Saurashtra, losing 11 seats to the Congress. The party has since concluded that the failure of the Vijay Rupani government to honour its word on MSPs for cotton and groundnuts cost it more than the Patidar agitation.

The second scenario presented by Kumar focuses on the arid state of Rajasthan, where, he said, “Agriculture doesn’t inform the central vocation of rural life. The caste and religious markers would dominate the imagination of the self of farmers, agrarian distress notwithstanding.” He goes back to 2017’s election-bound state of Uttar Pradesh (without the western part), where agriculture is still the dominant vocation. It is still not linked to market and the dominant mode of crops is not driven by market demand and rather consumption needs.

In this scenario, the solidarity around the occupational identity is missing because of the absence of uniformity brought by the interplay of state’s policy and market, he said. “Despite the agrarian distress, the farmers are likely to veer around their caste and religious identity thereby precluding the emergence of farmers as a constituency,” he said.