Kisan politics is back after nearly three decades. While Charan Singh epitomised such politics in the 1960s-1970s and the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) brought tens of thousands of farmers to Delhi’s Boat Club in 1988, this brand of politics has been overshadowed by caste politics and its counterpoint, Hindutva, since the early 1990s.
The recent mobilisation of peasants is a fall-out of socio-economic trends related to India’s post-1991 growth pattern. Urban India was the main winner of the post-1991 growth pattern, and rural India lagged behind. The best data documenting these trajectories can be found in the National Sample Survey reports — whose frequency has, unfortunately, been somewhat limited.
In 1993-1994, the monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) in rural India was Rs 281, while the MPCE in urban India was Rs 458. This already large disparity widened by 2007-2008: By that year, the average MPCE in rural India was Rs 772 (a 174 per cent increase over 1993-1994) while that of urban India had increased to Rs 1,472 (221 per cent increase over 1993-1994). When seen from the perspective of the MPCE, the gap between rural and urban India increased from 63 to 91 percentage points between 1993-1994 and 2007-2008. The gap diminished somewhat between 2007-20008 and 2011-2012, with rural MPCE touching Rs 1,430 (an 85 per cent increase over 2007-2008) and the urban MPCE rising to 2,630 (a 79 per cent increase over 2007-2008). Even then, at 84 percentage points, the rural-urban MPCE gap remained more than 20 percentage points more than what it was in 1993-1994.
This disparity is partly due to the slow growth of agriculture over the last decade. Between 2005-20006 and 2011-2012, the industry’s average annual growth rate, at constant 2004-2005 prices, was 7.5 per cent, while services grew at an even faster pace, 9.95 per cent. Agriculture growth, in comparison, lagged behind at 3.8 per cent. These figures reflect the government’s lack of interest in agriculture, which has manifested in declining investments — in irrigation, for example — and diminishing subsidies — for fertilisers, for example.
The UPA government did come to the rescue of some of the poorest peasants by introducing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). But the funds allotted to the scheme, described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “living monument of UPA’s failure,” fell after the Union Budget of 2012, till there was an increase of sorts in the 2017 Union Budget.
More importantly, the MGNREGA is primarily meant for poor farmers. The farmers who are not the scheme’s main beneficiaries have suffered from two years of drought during which the agricultural growth rate stagnated: It was only 1.2 per cent in 2015-2016. The growth rate did increase to 4.1 per cent in 2016-2017. But by then, the rural economy had been badly affected by the demonetisation drive. Peasants desperate for cash had to sell their produce at very low prices to traders. They also ran into heavy debts with moneylenders charging an interest rate of more than 20 per cent; many were forced to sell their lands.
Their situation would not have been this bad had the government maintained the Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) at a good level — one of Narendra Modi’s promises in 2014. It did not, especially the MSPs of pulses, in which poor farmers specialise. In Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district, the failure of the state government to protect the floor price of the pulses precipitated the farmers’ protests.
The kisan mobilisation, therefore, is a fallout of long- and short-term factors. One of the farmer leaders in Madhya Pradesh, Shiv Kumar Sharma, who has left the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) to create his own union, ascribes one more reason for the farmers’ discontent: Policies of the BJP governments in states. Sharma’s claim can be substantiated on several grounds. First, the support base of the BJP is more urban than rural. In Gujarat, for instance, during the 2012 state assembly election and the 2015 elections to local bodies, the party lagged behind Congress in the rural constituencies. Second, in three BJP-ruled states, Gujarat, Haryana and Maharashtra, peasant proprietary castes agitating for reservations have often faced police repression. In Mandsaur, police firing resulted in the death of five demonstrators. Available reports suggest, that in most cases, FIRs have not been registered against the policemen. Third, after the Modi government had to abandon the idea of amending the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act in 2015, the prime minister invited the states to undertake the reform themselves; the BJP-ruled states have naturally been the first to change the law in order to make land acquisition easier for the industrialist. Fourth, when the BJP governments have announced loan waiver, the measure has not been implemented, fully — the dilution in Yogi Adityanath’s loan waiver promise is a case in point. Last, but not the least, the BJP state governments have not always been responsive to the kisan unions, including the BKS. Gujarat is a case in point.
After he became the chief minister of the state, Modi decided to hike electricity prices. In July 2003, the BKS asked farmers to not pay electricity bills and in September 2003, more than 50,000 farmers took part in a rally at Gandhinagar where the BKS leader, Prafull Senjalia criticised Modi for following “in the footsteps of Pandit Nehru by giving more importance to industry rather than agriculture”. Three months later, the BKS was forced to vacate its state-level office in the MLAs’ quarters. This movement, that was supported by Keshubhai Patel, took a dramatic turn when a senior BKS leader, Laljibhai Patel, went on a fast. On January 23, 2004, the RSS sent a team of five mediators. But the BKS leaders were so bitter that they opposed the BJP in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and attacked the Modi government on farmers’ suicides. The BKS also initiated several agitations to protest the establishment of Special Economic Zones and Special Investment Regions (SIRs), which, it argued, benefited industrialists at the expense of farmers. The organisation protested against the Mandal-Becharaji SIR arguing that the project would divert 50,880 ha of fertile land for the use of industrial concerns such as Maruti.
Today, the BKS faces a dilemma: Remaining aloof from the kisan agitation would mean losing credibility among the farmers, but the BKS cannot overtly attack the RSS-supported BJP governments. Can it play the role of a mediator? Another key question pertains to the connection between kisan politics and caste politics. If farmer leaders cash in on the past mobilisation — and resentment — of Patels, Jats and Marathas, their movement could gain rapid momentum — and vice versa. Hardik Patel may, for instance, exploit the fact that the five farmers who have been killed in Mandsaur district were all Patidars.
There is a potential contradiction between the Sangh Parivar’s attempt at representing society through peasant and labour unions and Hindutva politics that relies only on some sections of society (the upper caste urban middle class) while ignoring social divisions in the name of an all-encompassing Hindu nation. This contradiction could make the current crisis more acute.