<b>Fifth Columnist:</b> Summer of discontent
Even in these days of high velocity lobbying by various ‘vote banks’ to get a bite of the Indian democratic pie, there is no group as powerful and influential as the farmers.
Despite all round economic growth and the rapid rise of the middle classes, the hard reality of politics is that India remains a predominantly agricultural country. Theoretically, while it is possible to annoy one influential lobby and get away with it in electoral terms, it is certain that if the agricultural classes turn against a political party, it could virtually mean curtains.
Very powerful prime ministers in the past like Indira Gandhi saw the tide turning against her once the rural gentry had become hostile to the intentions of the Congress party. Charan Singh’s farmer agitation in the late sixties and seventies, centred mainly around west UP, Haryana and parts of Punjab, rocked the Congress boat like no other.
The first signs of the great Congress monolith crack up appeared in the 1967 assembly elections when dissatisfied farmers turned against the Congress in favour of a motley left-of Centre parties. The Congress since then never recovered its pre-eminent role in Indian politics.
Much later in the late 1980s and early 1990s, farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, held Delhi and Lucknow to ransom for days on end, forcing successive central governments to finally shift the venue of agitational politics to the periphery of the national capital, away from the lush green Boat Club lawns.

There is a good reason why farmers wield so much influence in Indian politics. In the current sixteenth Lok Sabha, 27 per cent of MPs elected – across all parties – have listed agriculture as their primary occupation. That is followed by political and social work, 24 per cent, and business, 20 per cent.
In the fifteenth Lok Sabha, 28 per cent MPs had listed political and social work as their occupation while 27 per cent were agriculturists by profession. Why, even in India’s first Lok Sabha, agriculture constituted no less than 22 per cent of MPs.
Which is why, Narendra Modi needs to watch out. The spreading farmers’ agitation in two important BJP-ruled states, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, suggests spreading rural discontent, which no – repeat no – political party can withstand. While the saffron party has the ability to troubleshoot its way through most difficult situations, the current farmers’ agitation represents BJP’s most serious challenge to date.
Unhappily for the ruling party, some analysts seem to believe that the great demonetisation drive, which seemed to have earned the prime minister kudos, may have a more direct linkage with the ongoing farmers’ agitation than what was earlier imagined.
Ironically, the ongoing farmers’ agitation seems to be concentrated in the relatively prosperous agriculture belts of the two states. It stretches from Nashik, Ahmednagar and Pune to Vidharva, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur in Western Maharashtra and Neemuch, Mandsaur and Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh’s Malwa region. Farmers here grow a range of commercial crops, apart from belonging to largely progressive and political agricultural communities like the Marathas and Patidars. They hold a distinct advantage over, let’s say, their more marginalised brethren in drought-prone Marathwada or Bundelkhand.
These farmers have seen good times, what with remunerative prices, backed by the global agri-commodity boom and domestic demand fuelled by rising incomes. While some global down turns in the past couple of years have subsequently whittled away their gains, the more important reason for their angst seems linked to the note ban. In virtually every crop marketed since November last year – soybean, green gram, pigeon-pee, potatoes, tomato, onion, garlic, grapes and pomegranates, among others – farmers have witnessed huge price decline. The government’s claim that the decline has come due to bumper production is only partially true as there is also a demand side. Produce trading in India is overwhelmingly cash-based. The body blow that demonetisation has delivered to this agro-commercial segment, can scarcely be under-estimated. Added to it is the lack of formal rural finance to step in and fill the gap and losses.

Both the central and state governments now have to take steps to improve the situation because the history of farmers’ agitation in the country suggests that it has a way of spreading like wild fire and unless contained in time, can have disastrous consequences for the ruling party in power.
Importantly, one of the much-overlooked aspects of BJP’s electoral triumph in UP was linked to the party’s promise of waiving off all farmer loans, if elected to power. In a show of bravado, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath – with a flourish – announced farm loan waiver as his very first cabinet decision.
Quite apart from the economic consequences of such an act (the RBI has issued repeated warnings against such waivers), the political repercussions could prove more detrimental. It may not be enough to waive off loans only from one state; now debt-stricken farmers from other states want the same. It cannot be BJP’s case that what is good for one state is not good for another, particularly when a virulent farmers’ agitation is at hands in Madhya Pradesh, slated to go for assembly elections next year. Sometimes, troubleshooting has the tendency to go out of hand.
Ranjit Bhushan