A MEASURE of the intensity of the ‘Modi wave’ in this time’s Uttar Pradesh elections that it has subsumed even issues of agrarian distress linked to, or magnified, by demonetisation. There is no better indicator of this apparent disconnect between electoral performance and farmer woes than the BJP sweeping UP’s sugarcane and potato belts, just as it has done in the rest of the state.
UP’s cane belt largely covers the western Upper Doab region (Saharanpur, Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Meerut, Hapur, Ghaziabad and Bulandshahr), Rohilkhand (Bijnor, Amroha, Sambhal, Moradabad, Rampur, Badaun, Bareilly, Pilibhit and Shahjahanpur) and the adjoining Awadh districts of Lakhimpur Kheri and Sitapur. The potato-growing areas are primarily concentrated in the Central and Lower Doab districts of Aligarh, Hathras, Etah, Farrukhabad, Agra, Firozabad, Mainpuri, Etawah, Kannuaj, Kanpur and extending to Barabanki.
In all, there are about 106 Assembly constituencies that can be seen as part of UP’s main sugarcane belt and another 62 falling in the potato belt. All of them voted in the first three phases between February 11 and February 19. The BJP, it turns out, won 83 out of the 106 ‘ganna’ and 50 out of the 62 ‘alu’ constituencies.
This, despite unpaid cane arrears to farmers by sugar mills in UP in the ongoing 2016-17 crushing season amounting to Rs 3,946.72 crore as on March 10. The shortage of cane in other states like Maharashtra and Karnataka, alongside ex-factory sugar prices recovering to Rs 36.50-37 per kg from the lows of Rs 22.50 in July 2015, had raised hopes among growers of a better bargaining position with mills. That hope was, however, significantly diminished because of demonetisation, which led to the closure of kolhus and crushers that produce traditional sweeteners like gur and khandsari. The absence of competition meant that farmers were forced to sell virtually their entire cane to mills, which have continued to default or delay payments as before.
The same goes for potatoes, where prices in mandis from Agra to Etawah and Farrukhabad are currently ruling at Rs 300-400 per quintal, as against Rs 700-800 at this time last year. In the one month or so after demonetisation, there were reports of farmers and cold storage owners even throwing away their produce because of cash-strapped traders having no cash to make purchases.
But clearly, all this has had no impact on the election results. Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, which sought to make timely cane payments a poll issue, was able to garner nearly 15.5 lakh votes, though it could win just a solitary seat of Chhaprauli (Baghpat). The reason: Some 90 per cent of its votes are believed to have come from the Jat community.
Attempts by other Opposition parties to raise agrarian issues were either too feeble or failed to carry credibility with the voters. The ruling Samajwadi Party was, after all, no less guilty of not doing much for farmers – whether has to do with guaranteeing minimum support price for paddy and wheat or ensuring mills discharged their cane dues.
In the end, most UP farmers did what others did: Go where the wind was blowing and vote for change. In this case, it was for a party that hadn’t been in power in India’s largest state for almost 15 years.