Tough choices for Modi as fires rage in the fields

For more than three years, Mr Modi has been in promissory mode, making one pledge after another, giving one assurance after another.

Unless the Narendra Modi government is successful in not just dousing the literal raging fires in the fields but also prevent these from spreading to other states and new regions, it will soon be on the edge of a political precipice. Lulled into complacency by successive electoral victories since the setback in Bihar in November 2015 — the most important booster dose coming from the astounding victory in Uttar Pradesh, undoubtedly the most significant and visible vote of confidence for the most disruptive government decision in decades, demonetisation, the government had begun believing that it could continue to sweep evidence of growing farm distress away from the public glare. The problem was that while urban India could be lulled into the complacent belief that achche din were indeed upon us, rural India was just awaiting someone somewhere to ignite a fire.

The media, which till the other day was either tom-toming the finance minister’s claim that prophets of doom were wrong because their assumptions were based on “anecdotal evidence” or was pounded into accepting failure to read the groundswell of support for notebandi, has suddenly come to life with reports from several northern and western states detailing how farmers are raging because their produce is not yielding enough. Almost overnight, the government, which appeared incapable of making the slightest error, and the BJP, that looked to be on such roll that Opposition parties were willing to concede defeat in the next parliamentary polls two years before they are due, is now seemingly shaky. It may be too early to write an epitaph for the Modi government but there is no denying that when its history is written, this moment will be recalled either as the beginning of its end or when it weathered the first severe challenge after assuming power.

Does the sudden eruption of anger in places as diverse as Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, parts of Maharashtra, western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and even Punjab demonstrate that the Indian farmer is politically fickle-minded? After all, was it not just a quarter of a year ago that they lent wholehearted support to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand? The answer is multi-layered and must necessarily begin by examining the paradox that while rural Uttar Pradesh and the adjoining hill state voted overwhelmingly for the BJP, Punjab voted for the Congress. It is an accepted fact that while the identity politics was the primary determinant in Uttar Pradesh — and Uttarakhand, albeit to a lesser degree — in Punjab, the mood was primarily set by strong anti-incumbent sentiment. Moreover, the BJP remains a junior party in the alliance with the Akali Dal for demographic reasons.

Farmers in Punjab therefore, did not vote as social communities but on the basis of class identity. In contrast, the farmer in Uttar Pradesh, as the election neared, became divided on caste lines and remained disunited on economic issues confronting them as a class. Caste divergences have now been sunk in Uttar Pradesh, where the Bharatiya Kisan Union and other farmers’ organisations have begun agitations against the crisis that stares them in the face, but only after two developments. First, the lead taken by farmers in other states, and second, the continuing confusion over loan waiver. Almost three months after newly-elected chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced the scheme, there is no clarity on who will be benefited under this scheme and how.

For more than three years, Mr Modi has been in promissory mode, making one pledge after another, giving one assurance after another. Like most politicians before him, he had little intention to fulfil most of his assurances but unlike before, the people trusted him more than they had faith in the others. Consequently, the expectations from Mr Modi were higher compared to predecessors. It was nothing short of political myopia to expect that the loan waiver announcement in Uttar Pradesh would not trigger agitations in other states. Failure to anticipate farmers’ stir in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and then in other states, is indicative of hubris setting in. The BJP top brass believed that it could continue alienating one political party after another with little consequence. But party leaders forgot that while Opposition parties can be discredited, marginalised and sidelined, it is not possible to subdue the spirit to protest. History has time and again proved that movements do not necessarily need a leader; they emerge from within. Opposition leaders are not making a beeline for Mandsaur because of sudden realisation of farmers’ woes but to stay politically relevant.

Arun Jaitley refused to accept the fiscal burden of loan waivers. As finance minister he may afford to do this but others in the party, specially Mr Modi, can ill afford to paint the sop as infantile decisions of state chief ministers. The Prime Minister is faced with two choices: either he bites the bullet and retracts on loan waivers or he allows fiscal deficit to spiral up and throw all claims of fiscal prudence out of the window. Either of the paths he chooses will make his journey on the other difficult. If loan waivers are not extended to other states and more farmers brought under its ambit, as they are now demanding, the agitation may be tough to contain. The decision will however negatively impact the government’s fiscal management and result in loss of face for Mr Modi as a prudent administrator. Moreover, he has claimed for long that he does not believe in giving freebies. If Mr Modi is seen to be buckling under populist demands, his image will be severely dented. For three years people joked that while they were yet to see achche din, Mr Modi and his core team was surely having a good time. That phase appears to be over. How the Prime Minister navigates his course over the next few weeks will considerably determine the narrative in 2019.

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