The Congress stuck to its pre-poll promise of waiving farmers’ loans in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — within six hours of the swearing-in of the respective chief ministers. On Tuesday, Congress party president Rahul Gandhi made it clear that a loan waiver would be a key issue for the Congress to try and corner the Modi government ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“We will not let the prime minister rest until he waives loans. Congress manifesto for 2019 would promise farm loan waiver. We will do it – guaranteed 100 per cent – if the Narendra Modi government doesn’t do it by then,” Gandhi said. In fact, after the Congress victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party is likely to pitch itself more aggressively as the “saviours of the poor”.
After returning from a 56-day long sabbatical in April 2015, Gandhi succeeded in unsettling the Modi government with his “suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe and projecting the BJP as “anti-poor and anti-farmer” political party. The then Congress Vice President’s tirade seemed to have hit a nerve and the government dropped its efforts to amend the Land Acquisition Act that had been passed by the previous UPA regime.
He held a Kisan Mahapadyatra in 2015, during which Gandhi walked through villages in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, where a high number of debt-ridden farmers had committed suicide.
“This government is not a government for small businesses, the poor, the needy or the farmers. It is a government for a few capitalists. The government is supposed to protect the farmers. But the farmers here feel the government has abandoned them Those who are indulging in suicide is so because they are not able to pay their loans,” Gandhi said at the end of the 15-km long walk.
Since then, Gandhi has stuck to maintaining that the Congress is pro-poor. But what’s also significant is the promise of farm loan waiver, that the Congress has been promising in multiple state elections. From the polls in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat to the recent polls in the five states, Gandhi has promised wide-ranging farm loan waivers and significant increases in minimum support price (MSP).
It has paid dividends for the Congress. The promises were believed to have encouraged millions of farmers to consciously vote for Congress in the Gujarat Assembly elections last year, where anger over agricultural distress hit the BJP more than the agitations by Patidars for reservations.
In its stronghold of Saurashtra, the BJP lost 11 seats to Congress, which tactfully tapped into the seeds of discontent within the farming community stoked by the Vijay Rupani government’s inability to honour its word on MSP for cotton and groundnuts.
The Modi government’s tight leash on MSP for farm produce has meant that farmers are under renewed financial stress. As per the latest data available, between 2014 and 2015 – after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government took over – farmer suicide rates rose by 40 per cent.
The Congress often cites the fact that in 2009, the UPA government waived farmer loans worth around 1.8 per cent of India’s GDP. It was a major factor, along with rural employment guarantee scheme MNREGA, that saw the alliance return to power for a second term.
In Madhya Pradesh, the death of six farmers after police fired in the Mandsaur agitation in 2017 has acted as a catalyst for Opposition parties and farmers to unite and press the government for debt relief and better remunerative prices for their produce.
In fact, Rahul seems to have played his cards right by announcing Congress’ promise of a farm loan waiver in Mandsaur while attending a condolence meeting of the six deceased farmers back in June this year.
The Congress’ relentless pursuit of boxing in the Modi government over agricultural issues seems to have paid off as out of a total of 424 rural seats in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, the BJP won just 153 seats as compared to 294 in 2013 – nearly 50 per cent fewer seats.
The big takeaway from the results of the three Hindi heartland states in terms of rural economy is the fact that mere development of assets — building roads, houses and toilets or providing access to electricity, LPG and broadband connectivity — isn’t enough and farmers vote for what they need (rise in income) more than what they want.
Picture this, since 2014-15, the average annual increase in the wholesale price index has been only 2.75 per cent for “food articles” and 0.76 per cent for “non-food” agricultural articles. As against this, the same during the preceding five-year period of the UPA government amounted to 12.26 per cent and 11.04 per cent, respectively.
In other words, along with lower income growth, farmers have also experienced deterioration in terms of trade and it will be a major poll plank of the Congress and the Opposition going into the 2019 general elections.