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An election of ‘real’ issues, role of a credible alternative: Ways to read the battle ahead

Yogendra Yadav explained a range of issues related to the coming Lok Sabha elections and the farms and jobs situation in the country.

Yogendra Yadav with Ravish Tiwari (left) and Harish Damodaran; the engaged audience at the Express Explained Conversation in New Delhi. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)

Before the Pulwama terror attack and IAF strikes on the Balakot Jaish camp, the crisis of farms and jobs was the biggest talking point of the Lok Sabha election campaign. In this Conversation held before the slide in ties with Pakistan, political scientist and activist Yogendra Yadav discussed the nature of the twin crises with The Indian Express editors Ravish Tiwari and Harish Damodaran.

On whether agrarian distress could be to the Narendra Modi government in 2019 what corruption was to the Manmohan Singh government in 2014

Democracy and secularism are not the issues on which the government is on the back foot, it is on the back foot on the economy, and principally on the issues of farmers and unemployment. They are playing out somewhat differently, even though it isn’t as though one is a bigger crisis than the other — but on farming, I think it is fair to say that there is a very deep anger.

By and large, the BJP has not been the preferred party of the Indian farmer. 2014 was an exception. A lot of farmers in Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh voted for the BJP for the first time — because there was this sense of hope and positivity, that sound development and growth was going to take place, etc. But thereafter there has been a series of disappointments, and the ordinary farmer appears to have made up his or her mind that this is not his or her kind of party.

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This is probably not so much the case on the unemployment issue, which may be a bigger crisis, but at the moment the farmers’ crisis has become politically very important. The results of the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were only a partial reflection of that crisis. In Rajasthan, the Congress should have won 150-160 seats, but they won barely 100. So, there is anger, there is resentment, but there isn’t a good agency that can channelise it, that can provide an alternative. If that were to become the case, or if that appears to be the case, one could expect almost a rural wave against the BJP. As of now, we cannot be sure — but that is a possibility.

On whether farmers’ issues have decided any earlier election, and why they should do so this time

The last time the farmers’ agenda was on the national centre stage was I think in 1988… at the time of the famous rally by Mahendra Singh Tikait, the time when M D Nanjundaswamy in Karnataka and Sharad Joshi in Maharashtra were carrying out these big agitations.

Which was the last general election in which farmers’ issues were the prime issue? None. In the last 15 general elections, I can’t think of even one in which rural, agrarian, farmers’ issues were centre stage. I can think of some state elections where they may have played a role, for example, when Chaudhary Devi Lal in 1987 offered farm loan waivers and swept to power… but nationally, none.

In this sense, this is the most exciting thing (in this election). After a long time, you may be looking at a general election in which real issues may be foregrounded, issues of farmers, issues of unemployment, may come to the fore. That’s a big change.

Yadav explained a range of issues related to the coming Lok Sabha elections and the farms and jobs situation to readers of The Indian Express. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)

Why should it happen now? Well, the supply side of politics and the demand side of politics often don’t match… the idea that you have the biggest rebellion at the biggest pain-point is simply not true. For example, a lot of us tend to measure farmers’ distress by suicide figures. But suicide figures do not reflect farmers’ pain-point, at least in the specifics. The worst affected areas of Indian farming — Bundelkhand, a part of Rayalaseema, a part of Marathwada, some parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, parts of Bihar — see some of the lowest suicide rates. So suicides and farmers’ distress do not have a strong one-to-one relationship. Similarly, times of farmers’ distress and times and occasions of farmers’ movements are not directly related.

Mr Modi’s regime saw two drought years followed by a global and domestic fall in prices. When there was drought, the farmer blamed God, and when in the third year he at last had a bumper crop, he found that prices had crashed. That was the time when his patience wore thin; that was also the moment that saw a significant coming together of farmers’ movements. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee put more than 200 organisations on the same platform, and farmers from Tamil Nadu and farmers from Himachal, farmers from Gujarat and farmers from Assam, all came together. Remember, the three big leaders of Indian farmers in the 1980s, Tikait, Joshi and Nanjundaswamy, never sat on the same stage.

Audience at the Express Explained Conversation in New Delhi. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)

Second, instead of giving a large, 40-point agenda to the government, the movement focussed on just two points: remunerative prices and freedom from indebtedness. There is so much diversity in Indian agriculture, say from the coffee plantations of Tamil Nadu and Kerala to the rice cultivators of Punjab and Haryana, that they could be living on two different continents… But this movement found a common thread that could be articulated.

So, organisational effort plus a structural crisis created this situation, and of course, rather indifferent handling by the government. Whatever Mr Modi might say today, the fact is that for the first three years, farmers did not exist in his mindspace at all. That’s what gave farmers a certain sense that they were excluded.

On the similarities and the differences between the Anna Hazare movement and the farmers’ movement — the BJP gained from the first one

This happens across the world. An organised political party, which is in a position to displace the ruling party, takes advantage of a movement. Think of the 1970s student movement in Bihar and Gujarat. In terms of differences, the anti-corruption movement being a ‘middle-class’ movement, it attracted media attention of a scale and quality that was unprecedented. Let me give you an example of how this works.

In October 2015, a drought year, we did a 4,700-km yatra from northern Karnataka to southern Haryana. The situation in Marathwada and Bundelkhand was critical, so we did a padyatra there. We wrote a series of letters, called journalists every day, tried everything, but got no coverage. None at all! And then, an extraordinary thing happened: a cricket match… an IPL match, was cancelled in Mumbai. That evening, my phone just wouldn’t stop buzzing: “Mr Yadav, there is a drought, what are your opinions on droughts?” And this was the tenth month of the drought! We had carried out yatras after yatras, called everyone up, but until the drought disrupted the Indian deity, cricket and IPL, it did not even exist!

It’s only in the last one year that the tide has turned and the distress of the Indian farmer has come to be noticed. That is a very big difference. The farmers’ movements of the 1980s used to be very anti-city. When farmers marched to Delhi, they wouldn’t care about the disruption they caused; it would be like India vs Bharat. But if you see the recent Mumbai march, it was in a sense a turning point. These were largely adivasi farmers — and they decided that no, we don’t want to leave the people in the city disturbed and disrupted. We want to make friends. And this is what turned the media tide. In the march that we held on November 30, we distributed a leaflet that said ‘Please forgive us for the inconvenience that we have caused you; that was not our intention’. It was picked up by FM radio. So, farmers’ movements have learnt some new techniques, but in terms of media attention and coverage, there is still a long way to go. I talk about media because honestly, governments and policy makers care only if media pays attention.

On the reasons for the BJP’s defeats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh — farmers’ anger, unkept promises, or anti-incumbency?

The initial buzz was that farmers’ anger had defeated the BJP. But the situation is more nuanced. While these three states are similar in many ways, where was the farmers’ crisis the worst? I would have said Rajasthan, then MP, and then Chhattisgarh.

There is the factor of general acceptance of the government — the factor of ‘anti-incumbency’, as it is generally called. Anti-incumbency was the highest in Rajasthan, then in MP, and then in Chhattisgarh. Or so I thought.

Then there was the factor of availability of an alternative — and its viability. In Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh’s government had established some reputation for doing better PDS than other states, and had initially also set up a better procurement system, but it had also made a very big promise — a certain price for paddy and a bonus — on which it reneged.

At the same time, the Congress as a party was uncharacteristically active on the ground in Chhattisgarh, leading agitations, protests, etc. Also, it made a specific promise about purchasing paddy for Rs 2,500, and this promise was believed. Farmers actually withheld their paddy for the elections, and they actually got the price. That was the critical thing in Chhattisgarh.

In Rajasthan, the principal reason why the extent of the BJP’s defeat did not reflect the extent of farmers’ anger, was the Congress party, whose leaders proposed nothing, and were seen as investing less in defeating the BJP and more in defeating each other.

In Telangana, there was distress, but the government was seen to be addressing that through the Rythu Bandhu scheme. Raman Singh’s reputation too, was initially of someone who was trying to do something, responding to farmers — as was Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s, but never Vasundhara Raje’s. So to my mind, the political factors of how good the opposition is and how much of a credible alternative it is seen to be offering, played a very significant role and did not allow anger to be translated into votes.

On whether it will be agrarian distress or other political factors that would dominate the discourse in the elections

Saying ‘rural distress’ probably captures the situation better than saying ‘agrarian distress’. I think it is fair to say that rural distress will be one of the factors, though obviously not the only factor, because for the Lok Sabha, we don’t have one election across the country. In the 80s, people voted for a CM as if they were choosing a PM, in the 90s, they started voting for a PM as if they were choosing a CM. That continued in the first decade of the new century. 2014 was different. The country voted as if they were all choosing a PM. We can be reasonably sure that we are now back to the standard model of 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009. Which is, the principal choices will be made at the state level — and the moment that happens, we have a fractured verdict.

The issue of the rural will play out in different ways in different states. So in Tamil Nadu for instance, rural distress is clearly not the real thing. There is a joke of a government there right now, and obviously people will respond to that first of all. Again, Kerala has such a different polity that it won’t be correct to expect some national issue to play out in Kerala.

To my mind, the arena where we should focus on, which is going to be the real ‘happening place’ in this election, is the Hindi belt. This is because the BJP’s principal success in 2014 came almost entirely from this belt, which, from Bihar to Rajasthan, including Himachal and Haryana, has 226 seats. The BJP won 192 out of these 226 seats; with allies, they controlled 203. This is where rural distress can become a factor cutting across states. In a mild way, not as the only factor — but to my mind, rural distress, which has a component of farmers’ distress as well as a component of unemployment, is something that could hurt the BJP. And although there would be statewise distinctions — like in UP, the SP-BSP alliance will be the real way of aggregating it — to my mind this would be the underlying factor that would work to the BJP’s disadvantage in this entire belt.

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My broad sense is that all the BJP’s gains and losses outside the Hindi belt would cancel each other out. The BJP would gain a bit in Odisha and Bengal, and would lose a bit in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka, so the real action will be in these 226 seats — and that’s where the economy will really play a role.

(Edited excerpts from the Conversation)