The ruling party’s neglect of the “rural” is proving to be fiscally and politically expensive.
With farmers in Rajasthan successfully securing a farm loan waiver to the tune of ₹20,000 crore from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, the fourth state government in the past four months to do this, similar agitations threaten to flare up in other parts of India. Does this suggest the beginning of a reversal of the BJP’s big-ticket reforms as fiscal and political liabilities rise in these states?
Farmers in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, primarily the districts of Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu, congregated on 1 September 2017 in Sikar for an indefinite, sit-in strike. This came on the back of several failed attempts, beginning June 2017, to flag the issue of abysmally low procurement prices following demonetisation, among several other problems plaguing agriculture in the region. Characteristically, the district administrations and state government refused to engage with the agitating farmers, seeking instead to disrupt the protests and farmers’ unity. This move backfired as the agitation, under the leadership of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) of theCommunist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—grew from strength to strength. The support base and participation of the agitation extended to include common citizens, business persons and traders in the district towns, various local service providers’ unions and the overwhelming assertion of women in enforcing curfews and shutdown in towns and villages.Unlike previous farmers’ agitations witnessed this year, the protest in Rajasthan mobilised all sections of rural society. This is a significant departure in the chain of rural unrestunderway in the country.
In the reform agenda of the BJP, rural India has seldomfeatured prominently. The party’s political action has been concentrated in urban pockets, with its core cadre of Brahmins and Banias wielding influence in the many big and smallbazaar towns and cities across India. It has had limited success in reaching out to rural masses until 2014, when the ruralvote decisively sided with the BJP purportedly due to theNarendra Modi wave. However, this support base appears tobe slipping away. This is possibly because for the BJP, the“rural” has never been an integral factor in formulating ordirecting reforms.
Agriculture continues to be the mainstay of the rural economy even after 27 years of liberalisation. The structural transformation of the economy has not led to a transformation of the country’s labour force, 60% of which continues to be engaged in agriculture that contributes no more than 15% of the gross domestic product. Lack of employment generation in the non-farm sector, inadequate infrastructural development in rural areas and the shrinking cover of state social security keep vast swathes of the labour force arrested in agriculture and allied services. Thus, the neglect of agriculture is tantamount to the neglect of the entire rural economy.
Three of the BJP’s recent policies—the ban on cow slaughter, demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST)—have hit farmers and the rural economy directly. Demonetisation wiped away the all-important liquidity base of agricultural markets and farmers. In a year of bountiful crops, this led to a steady drop in prices for farm produce, leaving farmers with a gaping income deficit and an inability to sow in the next crop cycle. This explains the demand for loan waivers across the country, although the waiver only enables farmers to take new loans for the upcoming season. Secondly, in times of distress, the sale of livestock helps farmers tide over the immediate short run. However, the ban on cow slaughter and sale of cow meat, and the free reign of cow vigilantes have resulted in the nearcollapse of this market. The cost of maintaining cows has increased the numbers of stray cattle that destroy crops—a complaint which features in the agitating farmers’ list of demands in Rajasthan. Thirdly, the GST, which has hit the prospects of small businesses and service providers and thereby expanded the support base for this agitation from non-farm sectors, has also raised the cost of farm inputs for peasants. While the BJP may appear to have won the majoritarian discourse on the above-mentioned reforms, the emerging material outcomes could reverse this rhetoric.
If one sets aside the loan waivers in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, which were delivered as part of poll promises in the respective assembly elections, the only opposition party to mobilise and represent this wave of rural–agrarian agitations has been the CPI(M). The AIKS has been at the forefront of the mass strikes, formulation of demands and farmers’ negotiations with the state governments in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, and isslated to initiate the next agitation in Haryana. In the age of unorganised, informal employment, the revival of traditional trade union mobilisation taking the state to task over labour demands is heartening. The challenge for the Indian left isto be able to transform this moment into political returns and reverse its dwindling electoral fortunes. The challenge for the BJP, on the other hand, is to incorporate the rural in itsvision of a “new India.”