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Fractured Land, Fissured Ballot

Haroti, blanketing south-eastern Rajasthan, is a faded parchment, amber and crumpled from perennial lack of water. The Malwa Plateau to their east, the Aravalli Range in the west, the region’s farmers are busy under the fiery sun digging up ripe purple onions; barley and wheat shimmer in the fields, buffaloes amble in muddy waters—water bought by farmers for Rs 800 every week.

Less than a year ago, farmers across Haroti and its neighbouring Shekhawati region were marching to Jaipur and Sikar, demanding higher remuneration for their crops, better water supply and expansion of farm subsidy. From share-croppers and tillers to landlords and peasants, all renounced their distinct caste identities and unequal circumstances to forge a common identity.

For political parties hoping farm distress will bring about the undoing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the coming elections to Parliament, that was good news. That oneness brought about the defeat of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in last year’s Assembly elections. But it proved short-lived, unravelling rapidly after the swearing-in of the Congress’ Ashok Gehlot as chief minister—and the reasons hold out important lessons on what role agricultural hardship will actually play in the Lok Sabha elections.

From Jaipur to Sikar and Kota to Chhittorgarh, farmers still recollect their collective struggle of last year with the passion of a great battle won. But their memories are tempered by the realisation that changing the party in power has not altered conditions. The Congress had assured farmers that their loans will not have to be repaid once it came to power in the state–a promise it’s yet to implement. Modi’s promised large-scale employment and doubling of farm income did not materialise either. Failed by all sides, farmers’ voting choices are being driven by factors like local equations and caste, which will help them secure some patronage and power—not big promises or grand narratives.

 Fractured Land, Fissured Ballot

The Congress had assured farmers of Rajasthan that their loans will not have to be repaid once it came to power in the state. It is yet to fulfil the promise

BROKEN HOPES
“Farmers are like pigeons,” says Arjunlal Nitharwal, a villager in Manoharpur, on the Sikar-Ajmer highway. “Parties throw crumbs at us and reel us in.” His family owns 35 bighas—some 13 acres—of farmland, shared between four brothers. This places Nitharwal in the category of a middle peasant: neither poor, nor rich. He also belongs to the landholding Jat social group, which dominates these parts numerically.

Last year, they participated in the farmer agitation. The Nitharwal family stopped repaying their crop loans after Congress president Rahul Gandhi announced last year a waiver of up to Rs 2 lakh for Rajasthan’s farmers. After the agitation, the state government had given a Rs 50,000 discount on loan repayment—but not much else has changed. “Many farmers who participated in the agitation still face criminal charges,” says Mahesh Nitharwal, Arjunlal’s son.

In a two-party state like Rajasthan where voters have to pick either the BJP or the Congress, some farmers have started to wonder if the Congress’ loan waiver promise was just a trick to secure their votes. Others are more optimistic, but fearful that the banks will soon start calling in their debts.

Chand Manihar, an onion farmer who has brought his produce to Sikar’s wholesale market, isn’t among the optimists. He’s being offered Rs 2.5-Rs 4.5 a kilo, a price at which he cannot recover his costs. “In every election, we vote for change but nothing changes,” he says.

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“Loan waivers can help maximum 30 per cent peasants and minimum support prices at wholesale markets, not even 20 per cent—both favour the big and rich. Direct income support can help the most; the best is market reform and investment in logistics and processing,” says Ashok Gulati, Infosys chair professor, agriculture, ICRIER.

Faced with the prospect that no party is going to address their economic concerns, some farmers say their voting choices will be driven by other national issues. Many cast the election as a presidential-style contest in which Modi is matched, usually very favourably, against Rahul. “Modi is a better prime minister,” says Nandkishore, a farmer in Mundwara village, Sikar. “The country is less corrupt and armed forces deal with terrorists with a free hand now.”

POLITICS AND FARM HARDSHIP
Last year’s Assembly elections from Sikar demonstrate how the farmers’ movement didn’t necessarily carry into electoral politics. The CPM had led the agitation against the Vasundhara Raje Scindia government’s neglect of the farm crisis. Amra Ram, vice-president of the CPM’s All India Kisan Sabha and former member of Rajasthan’s Legislative Assembly, says, “The unemployment crisis, atrocities against Dalits, the Hindu-versus-Muslim tension encouraged by the ruling BJP and high input costs in farms had brought rural society together.” But the momentum of their movement did not carry Amra Ram back into the Legislative Assembly. “People split into caste, religion and region-based differences because their interests as a class, as farmers, are discouraged by other parties,” he admits.

Farmer identity, experts note, is not a monolithic thing. “All farmers are not the same,” says Amita Baviskar, a sociologist with the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi. “That is why ‘farmer’ is not a cohesive identity,” she says. For instance, demands to hike the minimum support price (MSP) come largely from rural clans with enough land to produce a surplus that can be marketed—like the Nitharwals and Chand Manihar. Demands for loan waivers, similarly, are more strongly expressed by large farmers with connections in local banks that ease their way to credit. But smaller farmers and landless workers are more drawn to schemes such as public distribution of food grains and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Act (MNREGA), which boost their low income and improve their lives. “Naturally, MNREGA is strongly opposed by farmers with larger holdings as it raises their labour costs,” Baviskar notes.

Similarly, castes able to secure their children a reasonable education agitate for government jobs. The less fortunate instead migrate to towns and cities as surplus agricultural labour, making daily wages. “Often, the politics of farmers is subsumed under politics of intermediate castes. Leaders mobilise them on caste rather than occupational basis. Hence, farmers do not vote as farmers and there is no farmer’s party as such,” says Suhas Palshikar, who taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

Indeed, Sushila from Ralawata, a village roughly one hour from Sikar, has sought for NREGA work for the last five years. Her family is building a house with Rs 3.5 lakh borrowed from a private moneylender at high interest; she must repay Rs 10,000 a month. “I really need NREGA,” says the mother of four, who supplements her income with five goats and two buffaloes—milk sells for roughly Rs 40 a litre in her village though prices have dropped elsewhere. Even though MNREGA was a United Progressive Alliance scheme, Sushila backs Modi, on the grounds that he has proved to be an efficient administrator.

So does Shankarlal, a Meghwal. Interestingly, Sushila and Shankarlal own small plots of agricultural land—but they are fallow from lack of irrigation. Both have switched to alternative sources of income but continue to stay in their village houses. While Sushila’s husband drives taxis for the booming tourism industry, earning Rs 15,000 a month, Shankarlal has switched to masonry, farming only during the monsoons.

In Ajmer, three hours from Sikar, those not even as fortunate as Sushila and Shankarlal gather every morning at Bihari Chowk to get hired as daily wage workers. By mid-morning, hundreds of men and women collect—including a toothless grandmother—all seeking work. Many belong to landless families. Their daily income of Rs 200-Rs 500 buys food, a ticket to and from their village to the city and a surplus of anywhere from Rs 50-Rs 350. But the number of people finding work more than twice a week is falling after Rajasthan was forced by the Supreme Court to ban stone-crushing, squeezing the construction business. “For the first time last month, I cleaned a sewer because lack of construction work,” says Sonu, a 22-year-old seeking work. “The government does nothing for the uneducated like us and we struggle the most to survive.”

“The concentration of work force in agriculture is a critical issue that becomes serious because of the unemployability of educated youth and non-affordable good higher/skill education. Thus, the agricultural issue while being economic, is also socio-political,” says Palshikar. Like farmers, though, the rural poor aren’t sure who to turn to: postdated cheques like the Congress’ promise of a universal basic income are treated with skepticism. Sonu says his family has traditionally voted Congress. The fact that conditions have worsened for them in recent months though has led some to consider voting for Modi.

HEART OF DARKNESS
From the heart of the farmers’ protests in the Hindi-speaking belt, Mandsaur, the complexity of their voting behaviour becomes apparent. Even though Mandsaur—a district of Madhya Pradesh—saw police violence against protesters in 2017, the BJP won here in the 2018 Assembly elections with a margin of 18,370 votes—down from 24,295 in 2013—but emphatic nonetheless. If the BJP’s votes in the Assembly constituencies of Jaora, Mandsaur, Malhargarh, Suwasra, Garoth, Manasa, Neemuch and Jawad are added up—the eight Assembly seats that make up the Lok Sabha constituency of Mandsaur—its victory margin in the Lok Sabha will be 65,000. That’s far below the 300,000-plus victory it secured in 2013, but still comfortable.

Budha, a village in Malhargarh Assembly constituency of Mandsaur, is part of a seat the BJP won by a wafer-thin 657 vote margin, down from 11,872 in 2013. Even so, no monolithic farmer ‘vote bank’ was created here. Malhargarh’s Saini and Brahmin votes did not migrate to the Congress while the landed Patidars deserted the BJP.

Additionally, the influential Bania and Jain trading communities of Malhargarh turned against farmers, both electorally and socially. Their rift with Patidars arose during their protest at Pipliamandi in June 2017, in which the police shot dead six farmers. “Local traders attacked farmers while police watched,” says Dilip Patidar, a farmer from Budha who had led farmers to protest against the [Shivraj Singh] Chouhan government. “In Pipliamandi, the nearest town, traders actually voted against farmers. That never happened before.”

“I doubt the Congress will sustain its gains in Madhya Pradesh into the Lok Sabha polls,” says Anand Rai, an activist best known for exposing the Vyapam scam during chief minister Chouhan’s reign. “Activists nurtured the farmers protest and the Congress benefitted electorally,” says Rai, “but not giving the promised loan waiver has angered farmers again.”

In Balaguda, declared an Adarsh Gram in 2014, the main road is broken. There is no bank, no hospital, no doctor, no factory nearby and no work. The farmers participated in the 2017 protests. Furious, they voted against the government. The Congress, though, has neither withdrawn police cases against them nor waived their loans.

Farmers, divided by caste and class, haven’t been able to turn their concerns into drivers of united political behaviour. Ramchander Patidar, an activist from Malhargarh’s Barujna village, thinks it’s a lost cause. “I have been striving for 20 years for farmer’s unity but unsuccessfully,” he says. “I don’t think it will happen.”

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Updated Date: Apr 08, 2019 15:11:33 IST

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