THE BJP’s election manifestos were replete with promises and programmes for farmers. After a preface, the 2019 declaration began with national security and ‘nationalism’ and went straight to agriculture and farming, ostensibly in recognition of the electoral salience and significance of these sectors. The guarantees rolled out ceaselessly: a ‘mission’ to double farmers’ income by 2022, the Rs 6,000 disbursed to small and marginal farmers in three yearly tranches, pension and social security, Rs 25 lakh crore investment in the ‘agri-rural’ sector, insurance schemes and the works. In the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, which votes early next year with Punjab, the assurances were eloquent: waiver of all farm loans and prospective lending at zero per cent interest, and an investment of Rs 150 crore in agriculture. There was not a word on the one issue that is exercising farmers even after the Centre revoked the three farm laws — to bring a legal guarantee through an Act to pay MSP for the principal cash crops.
For decades, the BJP worked hard to avoid being typecast as a party representing traders and businessmen. It has been unable to transcend the classification.
Varun Gandhi, the BJP’s Sultanpur MP—who supported the farmers’ agitation and endorsed their demands—continues to flag the issue as an area of major concern in UP, which it is, because while the state’s farmers recognised and appreciated the messages from their counterparts in Punjab and Haryana on the Centre’s ‘reforms’, their opposition emanated largely from the state’s unwillingness to raise the state advisory price or SAP of sugarcane. Over the years, sugarcane is cultivated in vast tracts of UP going beyond the ‘Jat belt’ of the west because it is commercially viable, is a perennial crop and lends itself to a host of by-products.
In UP, SAP governs the price structure of sugarcane. It is determined by the state government. Every government demonstrably took into account the interests of all stakeholders in the sugar economy—and not just the growers—before fixing SAP, which is why the farmers felt short-changed by the political establishment and the market. The Yogi Adityanath regime was not an exception. It increased SAP by Rs 10 per quintal in October 2017 before the local body elections. The price stagnated at Rs 315 per quintal as compared with Punjab that pays Rs 360. After intense deliberations over the next quantum of hike, SAP went up by just Rs 25 a quintal. The announcement came on the eve of the ‘Bharat bandh’ called by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha.
If SAP is one facet of farmers’ anxiety, the other issue is the absence of legal surety for the MSP that leaves not just the better off, but the small and marginal cultivators to the whims of the open market. The refrain in the countryside was legalise a reserve/floor price for the crops that becomes inviolable and binding on every buyer. Invariably, the open market refuses to procure the crops on the prescribed MSP while the state-owned mandis pick up a small portion. When the farmers complain that agriculture has become untenable, they have a point: this year, the current shortage of diammonium phosphate and urea because of a spurt in global prices and the Centre’s inability to import them on time forced farmers to buy these nutrients in the black market. As Pritam Singh, professor at UK’s Oxford Brookes Business School, prophetically wrote, ‘Even if the MSP is not abandoned temporarily due to strategic reasons, it should be kept in mind that the MSP would be used for paying the farmers only to the extent that it ensures the fulfilment of procurement targets decided by the government. Once this target is achieved, there would be no need for the government to purchase more. After that, the farmers, by losing this support structure, would become vulnerable to market fluctuations to push the price of their products downwards due to excess supply beyond the procurement targets.’ The prophecy mirrored the fears in the countryside.
The trouble is that at every step, the BJP betrayed a lack of cogent understanding of farming. A political resolution adopted in its most recent national executive meet omitted an allusion to the farm laws. While the silence was interpreted in certain quarters as a ‘signal’ of serious rethink (the decision to revoke the laws came shortly thereafter), was it possible for the leadership to commit an about-turn in writing, considering that just months ago, in February 2021, a resolution passed at a meeting of the office-bearers lauded PM Modi for ushering in the reforms, described as ‘revolutionary’? The farm laws were supposed to be the BJP’s equivalent of the economic reforms brought in by PV Narasimha Rao amid dissent within the Congress and resistance from the Opposition.
The BJP government at the Centre and the states regarded the farmers’ askance and treated their agitations as law and order issues. This attitude is not new. In Vasundhara Raje’s tenure as the Rajasthan CM, there were over a dozen instances of police firing on farmers, the last of which took place at Soyla village (Tonk) in 2005 and claimed five lives. In the Shivraj Singh Chouhan dispensation in Madhya Pradesh, farmers were shot dead when they had assembled at Mandsaur in 2017. BS Yediyurappa, advertised by the BJP as a prominent farmers’ leader, blotted his CV when a farmer was gunned down in his first term as CM in 2008 at a demonstration against fertiliser shortage. Would the son of a Central minister been as brazen as Ashish Mishra who rammed his SUV into a handful of protesting farmers in UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri? His father Ajay Mishra Teni is Home Minister Amit Shah’s junior even today and will likely campaign in the elections.
For decades, the BJP worked hard to avoid being typecast as a party representing traders and businessmen. Events show that the party has not transcended the classification.
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