In Rajasthan, Congress faces farmers’ ire over delay in loan waivers; risks conceding ground to BJP earned in 2018

April 16, 2019

Mandawara village, in Sikar district of Rajasthan, stretches out like unbleached linen in the scorching sun, with green Khejri trees and the luminous white towers of wind farms providing relief to the eyesight. A handful of farmers have taken shelter under a verandah. Their mid-morning conversation has turned, as is inevitable a month before the Lok Sabha elections, to whom they will vote for.

“Uttha-patak toh honi chahiye—one party should always replace the other,” says a farmer, as others nod in agreement. What they mean is that neither the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor the Congress, the two principal parties in the state, should get a consecutive term in power.

This is the refrain one hears as you drive across Rajasthan, sweeping past villages and cities from Sikar to Jaipur and Kota to Chittorgarh. Voters applaud themselves for switching every five years between the Congress and the BJP, for breeding in them a sense of insecurity and discomfort. Call this phenomenon the voters’ vengeance against the parties failing to fulfil promises they make before every election to garner their votes and come to power.

Every five years then, anger and frustration determine Rajasthan’s voting behaviour–the incumbent is voted out, the Opposition is voted in. Elections are about choosing a party for its agenda of governance. In Rajasthan, though, it is invariably about voters venting their anger against the ruling party, whom they hold responsible for their current woes. While both the parties have committed supporters in Rajasthan, the floating voter, ranging from 20 to 30 percent of the electorate, swings verdicts against incumbents. The switch from BJP- to Congress-ruled governments has been Rajasthan’s trend since the 2004 elections.

“We have always voted for change, but change never happens,” says Dholi Devi, a resident of Manoharpur, near Kotputli, in Jaipur (Rural) Lok Sabha constituency. “We have filled all the necessary forms but only one in ten is able to get a job,” says Sanjay, a 22-year-old MA student and Dholi Devi’s grandson. They live in a region with the highest unemployment rate in Rajasthan and where the Congress’ promise of a Rs 5,000 monthly unemployment dole had a special resonance during the 2018 Assembly elections. The entire family had blamed the BJP’s demonetisation policy of 2016 for the unemployment ravaging its members and neighbours.

But the Dholi Devi family is now considering voting for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections for they are upset that neither jobs nor the unemployment dole have reached them in the four months of Congress rule. Fuelling their frustration is their diminishing hope of getting a waiver of Rs 2 lakh on farm loans–which was another promise the Congress had made, winning over not only the Devi family but a large chunk of Rajasthan’s farmers.

The farmers had pinned their hopes on this waiver after several years of acute distress caused by water scarcity, rising prices of agricultural inputs such as fertiliser and seeds and lack of remunerative prices for crops. For all of these agrarian woes, voters had blamed the incumbent BJP government and therefore elected the Congress. Now, just months into the new government’s term, the farmers are already losing hope as their waiver is yet to be implemented. So, it is back to square one –they are angry and frustrated and contemplating switching to the BJP. They feel that the name of the party in power changes while the behaviour towards farmers, in particular, does not. For example, this year, the price of onion at Sikar, which has the biggest wholesale market for agricultural produce in the region, has fallen to Rs 2-Rs 2.50 a kilo, when the farmers recover their costs only at Rs 5 a kilo.

Still, Madanlal, a farmer who says he suffered a 90 percent loss on his mustard, wheat and chana crop last year, and expects losses for his onion this year, believes there is no need for a third party in Rajasthan. “We should just make the Congress fight the BJP and the other way around.” Whether he makes the two parties “fight” or not depends, quite simply, on whether the Congress keeps its promise of a farm loan waiver.

The ongoing elections are meant to elect the national and not the state government, but the voting pattern here is such that people want to punish whichever party is in power in the state. For instance, right now, to admonish the Congress in the state, many voters simply want to thwart its national ambitions. They can achieve this goal by supporting the candidates of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections.

“In this village, more than 70 percent voters were earlier with the BJP. They shifted to the Congress in 2018. Now, the BJP will get even more votes,” says Ram Dev Dhakar, a prominent farmer from near Bajor, in Sikar.

In 2018, the Congress polled just 0.5 percent more votes than the BJP in the Assembly elections. In 2013, the BJP had won with a 12 percent lead. Typically, the party that wins the Rajasthan state election plays a prominent role at the Centre, especially if both elections are held within months of each other. This year, the narrow victory margin, combined with the tendency of voters to bat against incumbents, has many wondering how well the Congress will do in the Lok Sabha polls in this state. The counter to this would be that within a few months of a party assuming power, voters, even as doggedly anti-establishment as in Rajasthan, cannot become completely disenchanted.

In Rajasthan, what is true electorally appears to be true psychologically, for many of its voters as well: their preferences swing wildly, from disappointment with one party to pinning all hopes on its rival, only to end up disillusioned again. Rajasthan’s voters are akin to an employee who finds his workplace unsatisfactory, who switches jobs but is even more dissatisfied in the new workplace and quickly starts emailing his resume to potential employers.

That said, there is a reason why voters behave this way in the state. “A government will come to power even if we don’t vote,” says a farmer in Sikar’s wholesale market. “At least, by voting we have a say in it.” Besides, they vote in every election but don’t see governments find long-term remedies to their problems and concerns. While farmers want the right prices for their produce and the unemployed need jobs what they are promised during elections by both parties is waivers and doles—important but short-lived solutions. “Loan waivers help resolve our immediate distress in the absence of correct prices,” says Gobaji Lal Meena, a farmer from Brijnagar, in Kota district, who owns roughly 40 bighas. “Does a pen worth Rs 10 sell for Rs 2 or Rs 3? So, why do our crops sell for less than the minimum price fixed by the government?” It is a question no party has been able to answer.

In March, roughly Rs 2 lakh of the Meena family’s total Rs 18 lakh crop loan, taken from formal banking sources, was waived off by the new state government, bringing them some relief. They are still awaiting a waiver of the rest, as promised by the Congress, to those farmers whose family member had committed suicide. In Rajasthan, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 7,927 suicides by farmers between 2000-14. Thereafter, the official figures dipped drastically, and are now a subject of debate and dispute.

Last summer, Meena’s own son had committed suicide—the trigger was a sudden and dramatic fall in the prices of garlic. Just a year before, garlic prices had hit the roof prompting farmers, including Meena’s son, to invest heavily in the crop using borrowed funds.

“Had we known my brother was contemplating suicide, we might have sold a tractor, a bigha or two, even my motorcycle, and saved him,” says Anirudh Meena, Gobaji’s younger son. But, says the father, if the promised loan waiver doesn’t come through, they may still have to sell land to repay the banks and some private moneylenders. The Meenas are traditional Congress voters and believed what the party told them during the election, so the delay confuses them. “The Congress should decide what it wants to do about the loan waiver — and it should do so soon,” he says.

Sources : Firstpost


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