Shivraj Singh Chouhan had presented himself as a farm leader all these years. But today, his government’s nervousness is apparent.
Batting on the front foot, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has launched his party’s campaign with an address to farmers in Mandsaur. If there is one thing that could dethrone Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, it is farm distress.
Assembly election in Madhya Pradesh is six months away. The last time the Congress won an election in the state was in the previous century, in 1998. Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been the chief minister since 2005, and the BJP has won two assembly elections with his popular face. The BJP’s mother organisation, the RSS, is arguably the strongest in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress is a divided house, a lifeless organisation. Kamal Nath was announced as the party’s face for this assembly election recently, giving him little time. Not that he is a popular mass leader across the state.
Despite all that, Shivraj Singh Chouhan has a challenge, and the challenge is called Kisan.
The anger of farmers across India is the biggest challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his 2019 election bid. We saw its impact in rural Gujarat, and in Kairana. But nowhere is farm distress a bigger issue than in Madhya Pradesh.
Rahul Gandhi promised Madhya Pradesh farmers a loan waiver within 10 days of coming to power. The Shivraj government has refused to give a loan waiver. Other means of alleviating the financial woes of farmers, such as the Bhavantar scheme that makes up for the difference in MSP and actual price in the open market, have failed.
Rahul Gandhi did not just stop at promising farm loan waiver, and did not make criticism of the Shivraj government the centre-piece of his speech. He went ahead and promised a number of things to Madhya Pradesh’s farmers. The Congress, he said, would create a value chain from farm to factory and set up a food processing unit in every district of the state.
A farmer-centric campaign that persuades farmers that the Congress can actually deliver for them could tilt the scales against the Shivraj government. Farmers are mostly from the OBC communities that mostly vote for the BJP.
The Shivraj government cannot give a huge farm loan waiver because the state budget can’t afford one. But that is not the only thing that makes his government look insensitive towards farmers.
Rahul Gandhi’s address marked the first anniversary of the Mandsaur police firing. This time last year, protesting farmers in Mandsaur turned violent. Six farmers died in the ensuing police firing.
Several farmers’ organisations in many states have come together to organise a “gaon bandh”, a village strike, refusing to take village produce to cities. It is in the middle of this strike by farmers across states that Rahul Gandhi addressed today’s rally.
Incidentally, Shivraj Singh Chouhan had presented himself as a farm leader all these years. But today, his government’s nervousness is so apparent that government officials in Mandsaur asked one of the families of the farmers killed last year to not meet Rahul Gandhi.
Madhya Pradesh saw two successive droughts in 2014 and 2015. According to data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau, Madhya Pradesh saw a 21 per cent increase in farm suicides from 2013 to 2016. Agriculture minister Balkrishna Patidar has added insult to injury by saying these suicides are not necessarily linked to farm distress, and people across professions commit suicide.
The political situation in Madhya Pradesh is similar to the one in Gujarat in December last year. In Gujarat, non-electoral organisations such as the Hardik Patel-led Patidar outfit helped create anti-government sentiment, which favoured the Congress in rural seats. Urban Gujarat saved the day for the BJP.
Unlike Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh isn’t urban enough for the BJP to win without the votes of farmers. Trouble is, the Congress party may not be able to create a momentum around farm distress that lasts till the polling day. Rahul Gandhi went to Mandsaur and will be back, but does the Congress have organisational strength to exploit the issue in the November polls?