Farm crisis: Is the honeymoon with Narendra Modi finally over?

As restless farmers coping with lower prices, joblessness among the young and rising debt hit the streets, Narendra Modi faces a serious challenge to his credibility and authority, a ticking time bomb

Photo by Biswajeet Banerjee
Photo by Biswajeet Banerjee

Zafar Agha

Farmers are furious. They are angry and hungry. Anger is driving them to streets and hunger is turning them violent. They are up in arms against the governments in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and restless in Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu and many more states. Their anger has already spilled over onto streets in Maharashtra and adjoining Madhya Pradesh. At least, five farmers died in police firing in MP the other day. The next day they took to streets again, burning government property and public vehicles.

Farmers restlessness is spreading rather rapidly. It was Maharashtra last week where farmers stopped vegetable supplies to cities forcing even a city like Mumbai to go without vegetables and fruits. Madhya Pradesh flared up with farmers’ agitation this week with six deaths and arson forcing the state governments to clamp down curfew in three cities – It could be the turn of any other state next.

It is for sure now that farmers’ agitation is spreading fast and furiously. They are hitting the street at the slightest provocation and are even willing to risk their lives for their demands. And, their demands largely are: waive off loans and better minimum support price (MSP). They are groaning with debt and asking for relief which is hard for any government to provide easily.

But what is the provocation that has turned the otherwise docile Indian farmers to turn hostile? There are couple of factors which has forced farmers to take to streets. The primary reason, of course, is economic. Agriculture economy is in a mess and farmers have no money. The irony is they have plenty of agriculture produce which is not even cost effective. They survived on loans for long. Its repayment has now literally turned into a millstone round the neck. They first chose the option of committing suicide when bank loan repayments became too much of a burden. They are now taking to streets demanding loan waiver. And higher minimum support price for their produce.

Bad economics?

Farmers war cry now-a-days is the loan waiver. Can state governments meet the demand? It seems it is not just beyond their means but it is also bad economics. Take the case of Uttar Pradesh where the Yogi government announced to waive off only marginal and middle level kisans in its first decision after taking over reins of power in April this year. The decision has caused a burden of Rs. 30,000 crores to the state exchequer which the Yogi government does not know how to meet. So, its implementation has been postponed till October this year and the U P government is now asking the central government to bail it out to fulfil the commitment.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath might have managed to postpone his problem for a while. But his clever move has fixed his counterparts and party colleagues Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra and Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan in a spot. Farmers in both the states are up in arms demanding similar loan waivers and better MSP.

All the states hit with this kind of demand are looking up to the Modi government to bail them out. But it is a trap for the Modi government which does not have an easy solution. Look at the huge amount for any government to just write off. Union Minister of State for Agriculture Parshottam Rupala in a written reply to Rajya Sabha during the last session disclosed: “The total agriculture loan outstanding as on September 30, 2016 stood at 12,60,26,450.46 (Rs. 12.60 lakh crore)”.

It is a staggering amount. If the government wipes it out, it would surely walk into a huge fiscal deficit, upsetting all its plans and pushing the economy into a major crisis. RBI Governor Urjit Patel has already warned that any such move will be ‘’bad economics’’ and will also erode the confidence of average borrowers as well as lenders.

The RBI Governor is, indeed, right in his assessment of the economic mess the farmer loan waivers could lead to. But he is looking at the economy only, which is his area. The RBI Governor is naturally not concerned about politics, which is not his turf. It is Prime Minister Narendra Modi and state chief ministers’ headache where farmers are on rampage.

Well, the loan waiver politics is bad politics, too. It is, indeed, a trap very difficult to avoid. If the ruling establishment just dismisses it claiming it to be bad economics, it simply annoys the farmer lobby. If it accepts the demand like U P government, it will walk into an economic mess. Imagine, agriculture supports more than half of the country’s population. Can a government afford to annoy half the country’s population? If it does, it runs the risk of losing the next electoral battle. Politicians do politics to win elections not to lose them. Naturally, it makes a challenge for the Modi government which so far it does not know how to meet.

But if the Modi government does not have a quick solution to the problem, it then surely runs the risk of walking into a mess that could cost it elections both in the states as well as at the national level. It is, already a problem which is turning into a ticking time bomb ready to explode across the country.

In fact, many states are already staring at grave farm crises. It is hitting various governments in two ways. Rural restlessness is taking the shape of political demands for job and educational quota for the farming communities like Jats of Haryana and Patels of Gujarat. Both Haryana and Gujarat have seen massive quota protests with Hardik Patel becoming a political rival of the BJP in Gujarat.

Both Jats and Patels are farming communities facing the farm crisis in villages and joblessness in cities. It is driving them to demand quotas, which is perceived as an easy solution to all the problems these days. Haryana and Gujarat have the BJP in power while Gujarat will face the state assembly polls early next year.

In states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, famers are turning hostile with loan waiver demands and higher MSP. Here too, the farmers’ agitation is led by Patidars and Marathas. Again, both are established farming communities in Maharashtra and Gujarat respectively. Ironically, Jats of Haryana and Marathas of Maharashtra have largely held reins of power in their states while the BJP has eased them out of power which is causing further heartburns for these one-time ruling elites.

So, farmers’ politics is also becoming a challenge for even an astute politician like Modi to resolve. It is not just fuelling farmers’ anger against the BJP, it is also pushing the opposition to close their ranks. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi during his recent trip to M P, for instance, was not accompanied by only Congress leaders. He had Sharad Yadav of Janata Dal in tow, too – a clear sign of the opposition sensing an opportunity and closing ranks. It is, indeed, turning into an opportunity for politicians like Rahul Gandhi who is already taunting the government saying, if you could waive Rs. 70 lakh crore bad debt of big corporate houses, why not to write off poor farmers’ loan too?

Well, the farmer-time-bomb is ticking for the BJP. The Prime Minister has so far not shown any sign of coming out to resolve the mega agriculture crisis that has hit the country seriously. Modi is not a politician of any great vision. He banks on rhetoric laced with oratorial skills to ward off a crisis. His mantra to push any crisis under the carpet has been to turn to divisive politics, which has been bailing him out from his early Gujarat days. The entire Sangh Parivar has been the masters of the centuries-old divide and rule game.

So, the liberal opposition will have to watch and devise means of warding off the game of divisive politics while it closes ranks to fight for the farmers’ cause. There are other urban mutinies too, which are waiting to burst out of the demonetisation spin off like urban joblessness and crisis in non-formal sector of the economy.

Well, the country is in for troubled times as the mess in both agriculture and due to demonetisation is catching up fast. It is becoming a big Modi versus Rahul game which, no one yet knows how will play out. But it surely is the severest challenge that Modi faces for the first time since he took charge of the country in 2014. The country’s honeymoon with the PM appears to be coming to an end.

(The author is the Editor-in-Chief of Qaumi Awaz, a sister publication of National Herald)

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