Political impact

Building resistance

Print edition : April 17, 2015

Congress president Sonia Gandhi with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other opposition leaders after a meeting with the President over the controversial Land Acquisition Bill, on March 17. Photo: S. Subramanium

There is concern even in the Sangh Parivar over the government’s position on the agrarian crisis, but it is not clear whether this will produce any result despite the unity the opposition is displaying for the time being.

THE most concrete sign of the political impact of the disturbing situation in India’s agricultural sector came from none other than the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Senior RSS functionaries met leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Union government in the latter half of March with a singular message: address the agricultural situation and dispel the notion that the Narendra Modi government is anti-farmer. The meeting, held at Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s residence, was indeed high profile. Among those who were present were Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, BJP president Amit Shah and RSS general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi and joint general secretaries Krishna Gopal, Suresh Soni and Dattatreya Hosbole. Several other issues, including the forthcoming elections in Bihar and the functioning of the BJP-PDP (People’s Democratic Party) government in Jammu and Kashmir, were discussed. But the primary question was the agricultural situation and the way it was impacting the BJP and the ruling coalition it leads, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The discussions had manifold dimensions, Sangh Parivar insiders point out. The amendments to the Land Acquisition Act and the responses generated in different segments of society formed a crucial dimension. The promises the BJP and its NDA partners made on minimum support prices (MSP) to farmers and the deficiencies in implementing them also came up. The responses of the communities dependent on agriculture to the recent natural disturbances such as the hailstorm and the unseasonal rains that swept across the country from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Karnataka in the south were also discussed. At the end of it all, it was impressed upon the BJP leaders and Ministers that the Modi government was increasingly being perceived as one that catered to the interests of the corporates and the rich and was inimical to the concerns of the poor, particularly the farming community. This in turn, it was pointed out, had led to resentment against the BJP in general and the leadership of the government in particular in a wide cross section of the rural population, particularly in northern India. It was also pointed out that even Prime Minister Modi’s popular appeal had taken a beating in this context.

Talking to Frontline, a senior RSS activist from Uttar Pradesh said: “It was not as though the top leadership of the RSS came to the conclusion on this just by sitting in their offices. The feedback that the RSS has been getting from several units, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, clearly highlighted the growing resentment. So much so that even the close associates of some Union Ministers from Uttar Pradesh found it difficult to carry out the membership campaign of the BJP, which was to be completed by March 31. The RSS feedback indicated that in a couple of places in western Uttar Pradesh some of the personal staff of Union Ministers refused point blank to embark on the membership campaign, fearing expressions of extreme animosity from the people.”

The Sangh Parivar leadership has apparently received field reports on the farming community in several States, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. These, obtained through diverse sources including media inputs, underscored the diminishing image of Modi as a deliverer. A media team that travelled in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar asked farmers in scores of villages in the adjoining regions of the two States for their view on Modi’s promise about addressing agrarian problems. The refrain they heard was: “Yeh kya kisan ke baare mein sochega, j aadmi dus lakh ka suit pehen ke ghoomta hain” (What will he consider or do for the farmers, the man who roams around wearing a suit costing 10 lakh rupees).

The senior RSS activist added that the RSS and other components of the Sangh Parivar had given such course-correction messages during the earlier NDA regimes led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too, but there was a significant difference. “Then, the messages were conveyed through individual missives or through statements in organisational platforms. The messages used to be taken with some seriousness and were addressed by the top echelons of the government. Now, with the commanding power that Modi’s personality cult has within the government, there is no guarantee that such measures will work. The Sangh Parivar leadership understands this and the meeting was called as a result of this.”

Independently, several Members of Parliament belonging to the BJP and other parties in the NDA raised similar points with Frontline. All of them had the same complaint—that the process of consultation down the line, especially with MPs, had disappeared from the party’s governance mechanisms. Many of them specifically referred to the amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill, pointing out that over 80 per cent of the rural MPs of the BJP and its allies in the NDA had reservations about them. But there was no forum to air these reservations. While the RSS intervention through the meeting has been welcomed by these MPs, most of those who interacted with Frontline were not hopeful that there would be any dramatic change in the style of functioning of the government.

“At best, what we can say is that we are keeping our fingers crossed as to how things will unfold after this meeting and the message that has been imparted through it,” said a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh.

Effect on Congress

One political outcome of the disturbing agricultural situation is that the Congress has been able to shrug off some of the political and organisational sluggishness that had characterised the party for a long time now. Party president Sonia Gandhi herself led the charge. The Congress was able to rally almost the entire opposition on the amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill. The Left parties, the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Trinamool Congress all joined hands in a united action. The opposition was able to take up the rejection of the proposal of a 50 per cent hike in the MSP for farmers and it accused Modi of doing a somersault on issues relating to agriculture.

Talking to Frontline, former Union Minister Vayalar Ravi pointed out that Modi’s somersault was evident from the manner in which he had forgotten his own promise on MSP. “Barely a year ago, he was lampooning the Congress, saying that we had turned the immortal Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (hail soldier, hail farmer) slogan coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri into Mar Jawan, Mar Kisan (die soldier, die farmer). What do he and his party have to say now when farmers are committing suicide in various parts of the country and jawans are being killed by terrorists?”

The opposition unity on the agricultural crisis may have put the BJP and its allies in a spot, but it is not clear whether it will develop into a concrete political movement with a clear policy orientation. The positions held by the Congress and other regional outfits on a variety of issues, including land acquisition, are not consistently pro-farmer. Even on issues such as MSP, these parties have been found to behave differently while in the opposition and in the government.

Raja Bhayya, an activist of the Vidhya Dham Samiti, which has consistently raised farmers’ issues in the Bundhelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, pointed out that no political organisation was taking up the points highlighted as early as 2006 by the National Commission for Farmers (NCF) headed by the renowned agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan. Bhayya pointed out that the major causes of the Indian agrarian crisis identified by the NCF were the unfinished agenda in land reform; access, adequacy and timeliness of institutional credit; and opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing. “It is nine years since these key recommendations were made. But neither the political leadership nor the technocrats and bureaucrats in big institutions have sought to implement them in earnest. Many have paid lip service, but when it comes to implementation all of them falter. This is a vicious cycle that one has witnessed over several decades.” The observation has been proved right by the past and the present. Indeed, given this track record, it may be too much to expect that the RSS advisory to the Modi government or the united opposition initiative on agrarian issues will produce any result.

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