After sweeping the Maharashtra Assembly polls three years ago and subsequently foraying into local self-governing bodies, the euphoric BJP is facing a major challenge: containing the ongoing agrarian unrest in the state. As farmers indulge in violence and arson, besides dumping milk and vegetables on roads, the tactics of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis do not seem to be working, raising a question mark over his competence in handling rural issues.
While politically devastated, former ruling parties — Congress and NCP — have grabbed the opportunity to masquerade as the saviour of farmers. BJP's ally at Centre and state, Shiv Sena, has joined the agitators against the government (without, of course, walking out of the state cabinet) apparently to ensure that it emerges as the alternative in the event of BJP eventually losing the battle in 2019 polls, thereby edging out Congress, NCP and other parties involved. The current political situation, of course, is not likely to culminate in a grand alliance of Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and other parties to topple the Fadnavis government collectively. Shiv Sena has been playing the belligerent partner of BJP for years but is on a tight leash after BJP gave up its claim on the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in the recent polls, despite winning equal seats. Besides, Shiv Sena’s belligerence appears to be a result of a tacit understanding with BJP to cleanse Maharashtra of Congress and NCP.
After being wiped out politically, the ranks and files of Congress and NCP are still to come to terms with their changed status as opposition parties. Besides, many senior Congress and NCP leaders are either facing charges or are in the process of being probed for misusing office when in power. While the current agrarian crisis has come as an excellent opportunity for Congress and NCP to consolidate their respective positions in the run-up to the 2019 polls, the fact remains that they too are responsible for the present situation. For instance, the Congress-NCP alliance has, for years, ignored Swaminathan panel’s report. It had recommended minimum support price based on production cost plus 50 percent of the production cost. It is one of the major demands of agitating farmers, besides a total loan waiver.
Apart from politics, there are some serious issues concerning farmers that have been either been ignored or messed up both by the previous government as well as the existing one. Farmers’ suicides and simmering discontent over government policies have continued to grow. One issue that led to polarisation of farmers before the current violence was the toor dal scarcity followed by a glut. During scarcity, the government had appealed to farmers to grow more toor dal but when a bumper harvest led to abundance leading to a crash in prices, the government could not handle it, leading to agitations. The crucial faux pas was the miscalculation of the local availability of toor dal after harvest, the timing and quantum of import.
Before the current agitation was launched on 1 June, farmers had given enough leeway to the government by announcing the date of the agitation well in advance. The government apparently resting on its electoral laurels, chose to rely on its Machiavellian tactics to defuse the crisis. On the one hand, it apparently presumed that Congress and NCP would sulk and the ire of agitating farmers could be contained through Sadabhau Khot from the farmers' organisation Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, who has been inducted in the Fadnavis government as a minister of state.
Fadnavis waited for three days till Saturday, to convene a meeting to negotiate with the representatives of agitating farmers. While agriculture minister Pandurang Phundkar was absent, the chief minister attributed the flare-up to opposition parties and expressed his inability to accede to the demand of a complete loan waiver on grounds of lack of resources. Interestingly, the same Fadnavis government has embarked on a project to create the tallest statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj at the cost of over Rs 3,600 crore, to pacify agitating Marathas over the past one year for quota. He, however, offered to waive loans of small farmers and to study Swaminathan committee report on the issue of minimum support price. He also declared that in the forthcoming monsoon session of the state assembly, his government would make a law making it a crime to pay less than the minimum support price.
The government underestimated the simmering discontent that was brewing for some time among rural masses and the possibility of new agitating groups mushrooming in the state. The diplomacy of Fadnavis through Khot on Saturday failed miserably. Farmers' representatives remained divided on the government's formula and one of them publicly regretted withdrawal of the stir. Besides, minister Khot’s party, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, distanced itself from the government's solution to the crisis. Party chief Raju Shetti has declared that his party would not withdraw from the agitation and that Khot would be made accountable for his role. Similarly, veteran social worker Anna Hazare’s statement that he supported the farmers' agitation and would mediate between them and the government was scoffed at by farmers, who suspected him of acting at the behest of the government. The moot question was: why did Anna remain silent all these years when farmers were agitating on various issues, including the toor dal crisis? Meanwhile, various outfits that have come up, met at Nashik on Sunday and decided to continue with the plan of agitation that included a Maharashtra Bandh on Monday.
The Fadnavis government is now braced up to ensure supply of agricultural commodities to cities like Mumbai under police escort, which is neither a lasting solution nor an ideal one. The crisis has coincided with senior NCP leaders including Ajit Pawar coming under the scanner of Enforcement Directorate. Pawar and Sunil Tatkare had come under cloud for alleged irregularities in the irrigation scam when they were ministers in the previous government. Ever since NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal was arrested for disproportionate assets, the delay in action against Pawar had raised eyebrows in political circles, raising questions over NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s growing proximity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other ministers in his cabinet who visited Pawar’s hometown Baramati in Pune and lauded him. The Congress on the other hand is waiting for the court verdict on former chief minister Ashok Chavan in the Adarsh scam.
The current situation is reminiscent of the almost year-long agitation by the Maratha community for demanding, among other things, reservation, review of atrocities act and farm loan waiver. On the ground level, the foot soldiers in the current agitation are faceless and most of the burning spots (like Ahmednagar, Nashik and Kolhapur districts) are traditional strongholds of Congress/NCP leaders who have been humbled in the Assembly polls. Taking advantage of the socialist policies of the Nehruvian era, these politicians had obtained government land at nominal leases and created educational institutes, social trusts and cooperatives (rural credit, dairy development, sugar mills, and agro-industries) on the pretext of addressing the huge educational and economic backlog in the country. In rural Maharashtra, these politicians had become feudal lords controlling rural masses and their votes. The Fadnavis government over the past three years has been trying to breach the power source of such politicians. For instance, the government has banned tainted persons from contesting elections in a cooperative body and moves to appoint its representatives on such cooperatives.
However, the whole crisis cannot be brushed aside simply because it has political overtones, as the agrarian crisis continues and farmers commit suicides. The politicians involved have to become statesmen and exhibit some vision for farmers, rising above political considerations.
Farmers largely continue with traditional farming that blurs their vision of the changing world. The poor have ignored education and changes in the farming business. The adverse impact of globalisation, inclement weather conditions and lack of infrastructure like irrigation and power supply has hit them severely, making farming unsustainable for small and marginal farmers. Even rich farmers, including those who export cash crops like grapes, are feeling the pinch with international norms on quality of agricultural produce and the use of pesticides being tightened in the global market. Now, with Brexit and a fresh wave among western countries of changing the norms of global business, things are in a quandary.
The real relief for the poor farmer (who is in distress because of crop failure or fluctuation in agricultural produce) would come from measures like crop planning, irrigation facilities, remunerative prices, developing skills, creating supplementary income, finding ways of utilising their land differently, experimenting with different crops/cropping patterns and releasing them from the servility of not just the traditional pattern of farming but also from the traditional mentality which has been exploited by their leaders, traders, politicians, evil social practices (like dowry) and expensive religious rituals.
The old order is crumbling but the new one is yet to take shape requiring a serious rethink on handling crucial issues differently.
Updated Date: Jun 05, 2017 20:17 PM