They say the waiver made them elect Congress MPs last time, but caste is what counts now.
Sonia Gandhi pushed the Food Security Bill through the Lok Sabha; Rahul Gandhi keeps flaunting it at his election rallies. On the ground, however, it seems to have not registered with villagers across constituencies held by the Congress. And the other grand public scheme introduced by the Congress, NREGA, appears to have generated public resentment against corruption rather than offer vote security to the Congress.
While the politics of these permanent institutions finds no resonance, the one-time relief towards farmers’ loans does. Introduced ahead of the last elections, this is what many villagers say made them vote Congress last time, leading to the party’s surprise victories in many seats. At the same time, they add, the waiver since expired doesn’t mean they will necessarily vote for the Congress again.
The Samajwadi Party government’s attempt to replicate the loan relief in UP after its assembly election success, incidentally, has failed to impress. This is because the waiver up to Rs 50,000 applies not to farm loans from scheduled commercial banks, but only to loans from Land Development Bank.
In villages of Barabanki, Faizabad, Bahraich, Shrawasti and Gonda (all held by the Congress), farmers across castes — Brahmins, Thakurs, Kurmis, Koeris, Yadavs, Muslims — assert it was because of the loan waiver that they voted for the Congress last time. They make no mention of NREGA or the National Food Security Act unless one brings these up.
At Haleem Nagar village in Faizabad, Nishad Khan says, “My loan of Rs 44,000 was waived, so I voted for the Congress.” At Udhauli village in Barabanki, Ram Shanker Verma, a Kurmi, cites the same reason and also mentions Kurmi leader Beni Prasad Verma’s association with the Congress.
The waiver is something they bring up of their own. Any mention of NREGA agitates them. They say the money under the scheme is being siphoned by village pradhans and has made no impact on their voting choice.
“NREGA is a fraud. If 10 people go for work, the pradhan collects money for 20,” says Dev Prasad Maurya of Rampur village in Shrawasti. He too claims to have voted for the Congress because of the waiver.
“We haven’t heard much about the Food Security Act. I don’t think anyone has benefited from it. Anyway, it will benefit the kotedaar (fair price shop-owner) more than anyone else,” says Setu Ram Chaudhary of Sisaur Andupur in Gonda. He will vote for Beni Prasad Verma because he belongs to the same community.
No voter The Indian Express met in these Congress-held constituencies, however, said they would vote again for the party because of the waiver. “The loan waiver helped several farmers and did not differentiate on the basis of caste or religion. I voted for the Congress, but not this time,” says Jay Prasad Singh, a Thakur at Laluhi village in Bahraich.
If it was the party that secured its candidates’ victories last time, the current candidates will need to fall back on local caste arithmetic. “Last time, people voted not for candidate Vinnu Pandey but for the Congress because of its loan waiver scheme,” says Lalmani Pandey of Rampur-Pandeypurva in Shrawasti. He says he will not vote for the Congress’s Brahmin candidate, whom he sees as weaker than the BJP’s Brahmin opponent.
Even Muslim beneficiaries of that scheme are weighing their options as they seek to identify who is best placed to defeat the BJP candidates. “Last time, I had voted for the Congress because of the loan waiver,” Mohammed Ibrahim of Faizabad’s Haleem Nagar echoes many others elsewhere. “This time it is a toss-up between the Congress and the SP depending on who is ahead.”
Not only has general goodwill for the Congress waned but farmers also seem influenced by a general impression that the party has gone out of the race. This has set the stage for them returning to their traditional voting ways. “I will vote for the BSP’s Lalji Verma because if I vote for any other party or candidate, no one will believe it,” says Tej Narain Verma of Kakandhu village in Shrawasti who, too, claims he voted Congress last time. The BSP candidate is a Kurmi like he is. That is also the reason why Kurmi villagers in Gonda are still rooting for Verma.
About the SP government’s selective loan waiver scheme, Khateeb Ansari of Beria village in Bahraich constituency says, “The Congress debt waiver created a wave in favour of the party across villages, but the SP scheme has not had a similar effect as it does not cover all scheduled commercial banks’ farm loans. It has benefited the very few who took loans from the government’s Land Development Bank.”