Assembly election results show that deceiving farmers comes with a price

Frustration on the farms has reached an inflexion point. All of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promises could actually go against him. To gauge if the farmers’ anger can become a potent political force in 2019, it is important to understand the “farmer’s identity”. Identities rarely exist in neat silos, and that is true of the farmer as well. In India’s rural areas, identities are multi-layered. People identify themselves along multiple lines — religion, caste, language, occupation, region, land ownership, positions in the government or simply aspirations.

Livelihoods in villages are no longer self-sustained, but are tied to market forces. In the quest to increase farm productivity, agriculture universities introduced monoculture. As a result, farmers are now dependent on markets for not only selling their cash crops but their daily needs as well. The latest NSSO survey reveals that 48 per cent of the income of agricultural households comes from cultivation. Ever since the forces of liberalisation were unleashed, millions have been forced to leave villages to look for work. Each migrating family has swelled the rank of consumers. Today, a majority of farmer families have at least one earning member working off the farm. As consumers, they too are hurt by the rising food prices.

The implementation of the Mandal Commission Report and the institution of panchayati raj have changed the social fabric, politics and the traditional power structure in villages. Identity politics based on caste-backed job reservations has proved a stronger glue than associations that draw on occupational identities. Farmer leaders, who steered clear of the caste divide, lost relevance in Indian politics. The presumption that farmers are not a potent political force has resulted in a vacuum, where there are hardly any farmer leaders in the top echelons of political parties. The leadership space has been ceded to those who have never farmed, aren’t dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, own businesses, live in cities or have children who work abroad. Farmers do not easily repose trust in such leaders. Therefore, the farmer agitations amount to little more than sound and fury. The urban electorate’s support for farmer agitations is deceptive — it’s an illusion that will last till inflation is low.

Political parties and their leaders have promised simple solutions to complex problems. The majority of farmer groups are aligned to political groups whose agendas draw on populist manifestos, which cannot be implemented. Most times, these documents make conflicting promises like subsidised inputs, C2+50 per cent MSP, organic farming, assured procurement, cash transfers, income security, loan waiver, continued PDS, universal basic income and universal healthcare and education. Farmers latch on to the parties that make these promises in the hope of improving their lives. Farmers don’t expect governments to fulfil promises. Populist commitments like farm loan waiver don’t topple governments but will come to haunt new dispensations in the future because on the polling day, hate is a far stronger emotion than hope.

Across the country, farmers are never uniformly distressed, or satisfied, to find a common cause. Farmers growing different crops have different peaks and troughs in terms of profitability. Sops for selected crops appease only a certain section of farmers at any given time. The village polity is also splintered as multiple contestants jostle for a few panchayat seats. Farmers get to vote every year-and-a-half in a variety of elections like those to the panchayats, zila parishads, legislative assemblies or Parliament. This allows disgruntled farmers to vent their frustration against the establishment, which would otherwise force the kettle to blow-up. The hue and cry of the farmer protest dissipates even before the farmers reach their homes.

But, the message is clear: Farmers can band together to defeat ruling regimes. Farmers were sold a dream and felt deceived: The results in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and even MP substantiate this fact. However, a vote against the BJP must not be considered a vote for the Congress. It may appear so in a bipolar contest, but many regional parties will be in the fray in the 2019 elections. Like in Telangana, the farmers’ vote could get split between mainstream and regional parties. For the leaderless protests and long-standing grievances of the farmers to morph into a nationwide movement that could give an headwind to the Congress, the party needs to find and project a farmer’s leadership — one with which the farmers can connect. This is a significant moment in Indian politics.