Farm distress across the country is a warning signal for the BJP, which faces many state assembly elections in the next two years.
There is a bigger warning for the BJP in the way it got decimated in the panchayat polls in rural Gujarat, ceding massive ground to the Congress for the first time in 12 years.
The Congress won 22 of the 31 district panchayats, whereas the BJP had held the majority of them earlier. The BJP did well in urban Gujarat and managed to retain all the six municipal corporations but with a reduced majority. The BJP retained the corporations of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Mehsana and Junagadh but got badly defeated in the rural segments of these cities.
So there is a clear rural-urban divide in the verdict delivered by the Gujaratis in the local elections. Overall, the Congress seems to have roughly polled 52% of the votes and the BJP about 44%. If one conducts a theoretical exercise of extrapolating the local election results for the assembly segments of Gujarat, the Congress would seem to lead the BJP by about 5 to 6 percentage points. This could spell disaster for the BJP in the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections.
It is clear that the main reason for the BJP’s stunning loss in rural Gujarat is the NDA government’s neglect of – and sheer insensitivity to – the farming community of the state.
Gujarat has suffered two back-to-back droughts, and the farmers there have been agitating for the past year and half for a higher minimum support prices for cotton. Gujarat is the country’s largest producer of cotton. World cotton prices fell by over 40% in 2014 and this was accompanied by drought in Saurashtra and other cotton producing areas. Incidentally, these regions are also Patel strongholds and the Patidar farming community, traditionally strong BJP supporters, is said to have boycotted voting in many areas. Of course, the anger of farmers against the Modi regime was seen even in the Bihar elections.
In Gujarat, farmers had been agitating for a higher minimum support price but what they got was a much reduced support price from the Centre. Until 2011-12, cotton farmers received Rs. 7,000 per quintal as the minimum support price but this got progressively reduced to Rs. 4050 per quintal by mid-2015. The farmers claim that at Rs. 4050 per quintal, they barely cover their costs. The droughts in 2014 and 2015 worsened their plight.
In May 2014, the BJP manifesto promised that farmers would earn a 50% profit over their total input costs. But the Gujarat cotton farmers are barely covering their costs and the Centre has forgotten all about the party’s manifesto promises. The manifesto also said it would create a price fluctuation fund to insulate farmers from volatile global prices. Cotton prices fell over 40% during 2014 and early 2015. The government created a token price fluctuation fund of Rs. 400 crore which was hardly sufficient.
Overall, the economics of cotton farming went for a toss but the NDA government in Delhi seemed oblivious to it. Farmers recall how Modi as chief minister would routinely write letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking higher cotton prices for farmers. But as Prime Minister, Modi seems to have forgotten his cotton farmers back home. No wonder the BJP lost even in the panchayat of Vadnagar, where Modi hails from. Acute farm distress is the main reason for the BJP’s decimation in rural Gujarat. It is a warning signal nationally for the BJP. The farmers of Punjab are already up in arms and a big agitation has been in the making for some time. So is the case with Uttar Pradesh, especially western UP, where the middle peasants belonging to the Jat community are very angry. They voted for the BJP in 2014. Next time they may not.