The farmers of Pipliya Bujurg village, 80 kilometres south of Indore in Khargone district, seldom smile, unlike the farmers on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) hoardings that read “khushaal kisan, samriddha rashtra” (Happy farmer, prosperous nation). They are beset by falling crop prices and mounting debt, which illustrate the crisis of the farm belt in Malwa-Nimar. On late afternoons, when power outages force them to stop working, they gather at nearby tea shops to vent their exasperation, often accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of deceiving them with false hopes in 2014. When someone mentions his latest pledge to double their income by 2022, they grimace. Understandably, the Congress designated Malwa-Nimar’s 66 constituencies as its principal hunting ground before Madhya Pradesh voted on November 28.
At Pipliya Bujurg village, Shankar Lal Jat and Rameshwar Gujjar were killing time at a motor repair shop. “God knows when power will return?” Shankar Lal started a conversation with this reporter. “The government supplies only 10 hours of electricity a day in our fields; four hours of it is given past midnight.” Rameshwar Gujjar added: “We run to our fields at 1 a.m. to refill water. And in return for this gruelling work, we don’t even get fair prices for our produce!” Soon, the two were joined by Bharat Singh Upadhyaya, Roop Singh Pawar, Mahendra Jat and a few others, all of whom were farmers. The conversation got intense and their loathing for Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan was obvious.
This group alleged that the Modi government’s claim of having helped farmers get a return of 1.5 times the cost of production on their crops by raising the minimum support price (MSP) for 14 kharif crops by 13 to 18 per cent in July was not true. They revealed what was actually happening at the mandis. “The MSP for maize is Rs.1,750 per quintal, but we get not more than Rs.900 to 1,000.” They allege that the staff at the mandi are hand in glove with traders. “We complained to the administration many a time…. lekin goongi behri sarkar hai [the government is deaf],” one of them said.
farmers wooed with promises
The recently concluded Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh threw agrarian issues into sharp focus, with the two national parties, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress, wooing the farming community with a list of promises. To capitalise on the rural unrest, the Congress declared in its manifesto that it would waive farmers’ loans of up to Rs.2,00,000 within 10 days of forming the government. “The farmers are in great pain all over India, including Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh has a very high incidence of farmer suicide; a farmer commits suicide every five hours in the State. Between 2004 and 2016, Madhya Pradesh saw nearly 17,000 farmer suicides,” said former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, highlighting the injustices done to farmers, while addressing a gathering in Indore on November 21. The same day, in Sanwer, Jyotiraditya Scindia said: “Gareebon ko khana nahi, kisan ko daam nahi, mahilaon ko suraksha nahin, noujawanon ko naukri nahi, lekin Shivraj ko chinta nahin [the poor are hungry, farmers are not getting fair prices, women are unsafe, the youths are jobless, but Shivraj is not bothered]”.
Two days later, on November 23, Rahul Gandhi counted up to 10 in Vidisha, to stir up optimism for his party’s loan-waiver promise. Knowing well that farmers were disgruntled with the Modi government, he compared their plight with the Prime Minister’s “rich friends” and the largesse they receive from him. “Vijay Mallya took away Rs.10,000 crore, Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi ran away with thousands of crores. You [Modi] can waive their loans but can’t do the same for the poor farmers of the country?” he said. The message finds support with farmers. This reporter was told that an average middle-income farmer had anything between Rs.2 lakh to Rs.8 lakh in loans. Amrit Jat of Pipliya Bujurg village said he had a loan of Rs.12 lakh. When Modi visited Rewa on November 20, he tried to assuage the farmers. “My government is aiming to double farmers’ income by 2022,” he told his audience. They did not roar.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, on his part, talked about the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana (BBY) that his government launched in October 2017. BBY is a scheme under which farmers are paid the difference between the government’s MSP and the price at the mandi during a particular month. But the farmers Frontline spoke to described it as a sham.
In Itawadi village in Maheshwar tehsil, farmers, most of whom grow cotton and soya bean, gathered at a small, dimly lit sitting room in Hemant Patidar’s house to share their stories with this reporter. All of them alleged that they were yet to receive the money that was owed to them last year under the BBY scheme. They said that the BBY was deadline-sensitive; one had to hold one’s crops until the BBY period commenced. “This invariably favours only the well-off farmers who can wait. How can cash-starved farmers, who have nothing to eat, wait?” said Champa Lal Patidar. Hari Ram Patil derided Modi’s 2022 target for the farming community: “When he can’t ensure 1.5 times returns, how is he going to double our income? He can’t fool us again.”
Hemant Patidar spread the balance sheet for different crops in front of this reporter and talked about the losses. “For soya bean,” he said, pointing to a document, “Dinesh Patidar lost Rs.10,770 per hectare.” A copy of the balance sheet is with Frontline. A mood of despair set in. The farmers recounted how Modi reneged on his 2014 promises. “I voted for Modi in 2014; he had promised 50 per cent profit margin for farmers on their produce. But his Minister later told the court that it was not possible,” said Champa Lal angrily.
In February 2015, the Union Agriculture Ministry told the apex court that it could not implement the M.S. Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations of 2006. Among other things, the recommendations stipulated: “The minimum support price (MSP) should be at least 50% more than the weighted average cost of production. The ‘net take-home income’ of farmers should be comparable to those of civil servants.” In this year’s Budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the MSP for all unannounced crops would be earmarked at one and a half times the cost of production. But it effectively means that at least 25 crops, for which the government announces MSP, including important crops such as paddy, wheat and millets, are out of its purview. Moreover, the cost of production is not to be determined by the C2 method, which is considered a comprehensive method.
Harsola village in Mhow tehsil, quiet and picturesque but evidently going through water scarcity as there was a line of blue and white cans in front of a bore well, was another theatre of farm rage. There was a marked resentment for the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), which the villagers said was designed to benefit “companies”. This was echoed in most pockets of the Malwa-Nimar region. “First of all, we do not have the choice to opt out, and then, it’s unaffordable,” said Dashrath Chouhan, a vocal elderly man. “For example, for cotton, the farmers have to pay a premium of Rs.1,200 an acre. This means that if a farmer grows 10 acres of cotton, he will have to shell out anything between Rs. 8,000 to Rs.10,000 as premium per crop.” Apparently, they had not heard of anyone who had availed himself of the PMFBY’s benefits. “When we procure a loan, the bank deducts the premium without our consent. But when our crop fails, there is no provision for early assessment and relief. The patwari [assessor] turns up 15 days after the incident, and usually does a sloppy job. We cannot claim the insurance benefit individually, even though we pay the premium individually. The scheme stipulates that the benefit can be claimed only if the crop in the entire region covered by it fails,” grumbled a restless young man. “What kind of loot is that?” he asked as chants of “Kisan virodhi Narendra Modi” reverberated in the air. Everyone present pledged their support to the Congress candidate from Mhow, Antar Singh Darbar. The incumbent BJP MLA from the D. Ambedkar Nagar-Mhow constituency, Kailash Vijayvargiya, deserted his seat, perhaps aware of growing anti-incumbency, and traded the safer Indore-3 seat for his son, Akash Vijayvargiya. Usha Thakur, the MLA from Indore-3, was pushed to Mhow.
Jyotiraditya Scindia too dismissed the PMFBY as a scam. “The Prime Minister’s crop insurance scheme is a big scam, in which Rs.3,000 crore was deducted from farmers’ bank accounts without their consent and less than Rs.50 crore was paid to them as compensation against their damaged crop worth Rs. 600 crore. Shivraj Singh Chouhan has given the remaining funds to his friends in the private company,” he said at a public meeting at Balwadi in Barwani district on November 12.
In villages close to urban centres, people are kind in their assessment of “Mama ji”, a sobriquet they use as a term of endearment for the Chief Minister. “Ninety per cent of the farmers have benefited from the Chief Minister’s Sambhal scheme [which capped the electricity bill at Rs.200 a month for BPL, or below poverty line, farmers, besides doling out other incentives]. We support him [Shivraj] and we believe that he will give us adequate crop prices,” said Jagdish at Panda in Rau village, where the Mali and Patidar communities form a majority.
But Shivraj Singh Chouhan cannot afford to be complacent. On February 23, when thousands of farmers marched to New Delhi to press for acceptance of their long-standing demands, including farm loan waiver and a profitable MSP, they were stopped in Faridabad. “The Centre used paramilitary forces to stop our men,” said a farmer from Pipliya Bujurg village. The episode brought back memories of the Madhya Pradesh government’s high-handed quelling of farmers’ protests when at least six farmers were killed in police firing in Mandsaur on June 6, 2017. The tragedy allowed the Congress to whip up support among farmers.
A source in the intelligence wing of the Madhya Pradesh Police revealed to Frontline that the Congress might win 35 to 40 seats in Malwa-Nimar, as per a secret report prepared by them. In the 2013 Assembly elections, the BJP won 56 seats in the region, leaving for the Congress only nine seats and one for an independent. The source said that the BJP government might not return to power. As per the above report, dated November 26, the Congress will get a clear majority with 128 seats. The BJP will be a distant second with 90 seats, and the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and others will share the remaining 12 seats. The prediction matches the Congress’ own assessment. After the elections were over, Kamal Nath said that his party would win 130 seats.
For Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Congress’ early signs of recovery are not the only worry. Everywhere people are asking tough questions. His Ministers and legislators were heckled in several places. The legislator Rajesh Sonkar was greeted with catcalls when he went to canvass in Bisakhedi village in Sanwer, not far from the BJP bastion of Indore. Dilip Shekhawat was garlanded with shoes in his constituency Nagra-Khachrod, from where he is seeking a second term. Revenue Minister Umashankar Gupta was jeered by voters in the Arjun Nagar locality in Bhopal. Education Minister Deepak Joshi was not allowed to speak in his Haat Pipliya constituency. BJP candidate Arun Bhimawad’s vehicle was vandalised in Shajapur. In Neemuch, villagers drove out MLA Omprakash Saklecha from Jawad village.
In the BJP’s jan sabhas, the crowds are dwindling. Prashant Patidar of Itawadi told this reporter that during the last leg of the election campaign, Raj Babbar’s road show in Maheshwar tehsil drew more people than the Chief Minister’s mass contact programme in Mandeleshwar tehsil adjacent to it.
In the constituency of Dr Ambedkar Nagar-Mhow, BJP candidate Usha Thakur had her own share of embarrassment at the Club House in Signal Vihar, where she had invited retired Army generals and their families living in the Mhow cantonment for a tete-a-tete on November 27. This reporter saw Usha Thakur being assailed by a volley of questions by her guests. An elderly woman complained that the Chief Minister’s helpline number, 181, never worked. “Tell the CM not to publicise helpline numbers if they are of no use,” she said curtly. A retired officer said there were too many pigs roaming around. Another woman said: “The education sector is in a shambles. My maid’s child tells me that in the government-run school, the teachers write the questions as well as their answers on the blackboard on examination day.”
However, in urban pockets, the BJP citadel remains impregnable. On November 28, this reporter found that a cross section of voters were rooting for the saffron party in the capital, Bhopal. At the Roshanpura booth in Dakshin Paschim constituency, people said the BJP would win six out of Bhopal’s seven seats. At the Government’s Girls’ Higher Secondary School in Govindpura constituency, women of all ages, who had come decked up to cast their votes, swore allegiance to “Mama ji”.
Two days earlier, on November 26, when the election campaign was drawing to a close, the scene was not any different in Dewas, a semi-urban constituency 40 km north of Indore. Supporters of the incumbent MLA, Gayatri Raje Pawar, waited for over an hour, cheering and beating drums, before she arrived with her cavalcade. Gayatri Raje Pawar is the widow of the erstwhile Maharaja of Dewas, Tukoji Rao Pawar, who held the seat for over two decades until his demise in 2015. Her victory is assured.
In Dewas, as in most cities and towns, support for Narendra Modi is unflinching. Kuldeep Modi, the purohit at the Shree Mankameneshwar Mahadev Mandir, said the BJP had delivered both in the State and at the Centre. “They are building houses for the poor; their Bhavantar Yojana has provided relief to farmers. Modiji has reinvigorated India’s foreign policy and lifted the morale of the Army. He will come back in 2019.” A sentiment that was echoed by Shubham and Raja, horse riders from Kshipra who had come to Dewas to be part of Pawar’s cavalcade.
Unlike in the villages, where people are absorbed in their daily struggle to earn their bread, Hindutva is a saleable commodity in the cities. The BJP’s whisper campaign was in full swing as a resurgent Congress party tried to shed its pro-Muslim image. At the Shree Mankameneshwar Mahadev Mandir, a couple of men were discussing how Rahul Gandhi was colluding with Pakistan to choreograph the Prime Minister’s downfall. When this reporter asked them about their source of information, one of them said: “He is asking for evidence, as though we all are liars.”
The whisper campaign served as an anchor to the more vitriolic sound bites that have become a staple of the BJP’s politics since 2014. Two weeks before the election, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra gave a communal spin to a statement by Kamal Nath, accusing the Congress leader of talking to Muslim clerics about finishing off the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Hindus. Kamal Nath, in reality, had talked about dealing with the RSS. Yogi Adityanath portrayed the Congress as “Ali” worshipper and the BJP as “Bajrang Bali” worshipper during a rally in Bhopal on November 24. Uma Bharati accused Congress leaders of joining hands with Pakistan, in Damoh on November 19. On November 23, Sakshi Maharaj alleged that idols of Hindu gods lay buried under Delhi’s Jama Masjid.
The Congress is fighting this religious politics with its own mix of politics and religion. Its manifesto envisages cow sanctuaries and a spiritual department in the State, in addition to promoting Sanskrit and developing the “Rama Path”, which Rama is believed to have trekked during his 14-year exile. It has its own version of whisper campaign, too, to aid the “course correction”.
In “private conversations” with journalists, its campaign managers at the district and block levels energetically disseminate the theory that the party’s tilt towards the minorities was a construct of the Sonia Gandhi era, and that her son and successor, Rahul Gandhi, would not emulate it.
Yet, its soft Hindutva cannot erase the magnitude of the challenge the Congress faces in 2019. The challenge is made tougher by its cash crunch, a senior national-level leader, who is in charge of Madhya Pradesh, confided to this reporter. The BJP is believed to have spent as much as Rs.10 crore to Rs.25 crore per constituency. The Congress candidates were left to fend for themselves. When the leader quoted above was asked if the party wanted to save money for 2019 by not spending enough in the State elections, the leader said: “We didn’t save money; we didn’t have money. We didn’t give any money at all to the candidates who were resourceful. For others, we spent from Rs.20 lakhs to Rs.60 lakhs initially, but if we thought that someone had a chance of winning, we upped the allocation.”
The Congress maintains that the BJP’s ruthless spending on TV commercials and newspaper ads had no bearing on the 74.6 per cent voters who turned out to vote on November 28. But not all its leaders are ready to bet on it.