Despite wins, Congress failed to be an active opposition and harness farmer anger

Delhi has witnessed a slew of farmers’ protests over the past two years, demanding remunerative prices for farm produce, loan waiver and procurement price support, among other issues. Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
12 December, 2018

A breakdown of the results of the recently concluded assembly elections in five states reveals that the Congress’s tally in the three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has been propelled by agrarian distress and the resulting anger of farmers. A compilation of constituency-wise data shows that the incumbent Bharatiya Janta Party regimes lost a significant number of rural constituencies in the Hindi belt to the Congress.

In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—BJP bastions for the past 15 years—the Congress outperformed the BJP by wresting control of a chunk of rural constituencies. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress won 93 rural seats compared to its 2013 tally of 55, while the saffron party won 87 rural seats vis-à-vis its 2013 tally of 125.

In Chhattisgarh, the Congress has won 62 rural seats to the BJP’s 13. Here too, the BJP’s loss was stark— the party lost 30 rural seats compared to its 2013 tally of 43 while the Congress improved its number by 25 seats.

In Rajasthan, which has a tradition of switching parties every five years, the Congress won 87 rural constituencies—its 2013 number was 20 seats—while the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP won 55, down from 134 in 2013.

The results herald a return for the Congress after being wiped out in 2013 in the Hindi heartland. The Congress routed the BJP in Chhattisgarh by winning 68 seats in the 90-seat assembly; finished ahead of the BJP by five seats in Madhya Pradesh with 114 seats in the 230-seat assembly; and is two seats short of a majority in the 200-seat Rajasthan assembly.

The results came against the backdrop of long-simmering discontent in the country’s farming sector. “There is rural anger in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh,” Yogendra Yadav, a psephologist and the president of the political party Swaraj India, told me, “All three states had higher than average agricultural growth from 2003 to 2013, but over the last five years experienced decline. This relative deprivation is what hurts—people who have seen good times and then experience bad times, it hurts more than anything else.” In June 2017, anger over crop prices led to clashes in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, leading to the death of five peasants in the ensuing police firing. Crashing crop prices and inadequate state support mechanisms in Rajasthan triggered statewide farmer agitations that began in 2016 and haven continued since. In November this year, over one lakh farmers from all across the country marched to Delhi’s Sansad Marg, demanding remunerative prices and debt waivers. The protests elicited no reaction from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress’s wins are being viewed by many as a sign that the party is still a force to reckon with, and that the BJP is not invincible.

But while rural unrest is one of the primary factors responsible for the BJP’s reverses, Congress’s inability to manage clear majorities by capitalising on farmer anger in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, has surprised political observers.

According to Yadav, “The real question is: why is the extent of rural distress not fully manifested in the election results? The reason is the Congress’s complacency and inability to be a real opposition. Where they did in Chhattisgarh, they reaped the result, but in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan the party was absent. Simple distress does not lead to election results because you need a carrier for that anger and an alternative. This is a technical victory for the Congress, when it should have scored a knockout.”

Yadav noted that in Madhya Pradesh the vote swing away from the BJP is 4 percentage points, while the swing in favour of the Congress is 4.5 percentage points. In Rajasthan, the swing is 6.5 percentage points away from the BJP and 6.2 percentage points in favour of the Congress. “The Congress has done better in rural areas than urban areas, but my question is, why is it only a 5-percent swing, why not a 10-percent swing?” he said, referring to Madhya Pradesh. In Rajasthan, Yadav added, “The palpable anger of the population would have indicated a 10, 12 or 15 percent swing. That would have meant the complete decimation of the BJP, in rural areas at least.”

During the campaign for the assembly elections, the Congress promised to waive agricultural loans in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The party promised to execute the waivers within ten days of coming to power. Amidst feedback that the Congress’s pitch to farmers was gaining traction, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan attempted to woo the vote of the agricultural community. In Rajasthan, the BJP promised to make the process of Minimum Support Price (MSP) procurement more transparent, keeping in view Modi’s aim of doubling farmers’ incomes.

Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist and former chairman of the agriculture ministry’s Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, told me, “You need a 13-percent agricultural growth rate in real income over the next 5 years in order to double farmers’ income. That is 13 percent every year.” However, between July and September 2018, nominal agricultural gross value added—a metric of the agricultural sector’s growth rate— fell to 2.8 percent, while India’s overall GDP grew by 7.1 percent. What the numbers suggest is that growth is skewed in favour of urban India, in the form of services and consumption, whereas income levels in rural India remain squeezed. An analysis of the election results by Harish Damodaran, the rural affairs and agriculture editor at Indian Express, underlined this. “Incomes not rising, due to low crop prices and stagnating wages, has more than offset any asset gains in the recent period, which probably explains the party’s heavy losses in the three states it ruled, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.” The assets Damodaran mentions are roads, houses, toilets, electricity, LPG and broadband connectivity.

Gulati said, “Farmers have got a raw deal because of two drought years in the last four years. Prices collapsed after that. The price of pearl millet, one of Rajasthan’s major kharif crops, is 30 percent below MSP.” According to Gulati, “MP is a more interesting story because production increased, but that increased production without matching demand led to a collapse in prices. Onion is still being sold at less than Rs 1 per kg and in Mandsaur the firing happened because of onions. They are still less than a rupee. Garlic is ruling at Rs 7 a kg. It is way below the cost of production of farmers. All these things do get reflected when the farmer votes.”

It is possible that in the next five months the farmers question will occupy centre stage as parties gear up for the Lok Sabha elections. Yadav believes that the Congress will have to focus on agrarian distress as “they have no option because they have to fulfil their manifesto promises where they have won.”