Did Climate Change and Farm Distress Contribute to the BJP's Defeat in Karnataka?

The protests by tur dal farmers in Karnataka against the Basavaraj Bommai government are reflective of the exclusively urban vision followed by the BJP under Modi and Shah. The farmers' anger also contributed to the BJP's loss in the southern state.

The old saying that ‘victory has a hundred parents but defeat has none’ is being turned upside down after the recent Karnataka elections. There are dozens of reasons why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost such a critical state, each one contributing to a result that has made Narendra Modi’s campaign theatrics just that much more risible and unconvincing. One issue that has been overlooked has been the BJP’s relative blindness to the impacts of climate change in rural India in general, and rural Karnataka in particular.

Like much of India, parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra saw unseasonal rains this year. Karnataka is the “tur dal” hub of India, but by mid-January, the Kalaburagi district administration reported that of “4.78 lakh hectares areas of Tur in the district, standing tur crop in 1.98 lakh hectares has been badly affected” by wilt disease.

Climate change and electoral cost

Faced with drastic losses, rising prices, and farmers demanding help, the Karnataka state government under the BJP had no real plan to do anything. As it fumbled around for a strategy, protests grew, and the government was forced to announce compensation for crops damaged in Bidar, Kalaburagi, and Yadgiri districts. But here is the catch: compensation for crop loss largely benefits well-off farmers. The logic is simple. Better-off farmers (mostly men, as they own about 80% of all farmland, even if women account for the majority of farm labour) are the ones who are able to afford irrigation and quick action against disease.

Despite unseasonal rains, richer farmers are in a better shape to save more of their crop than poorer ones. Since overall crop production falls, prices rise (as they did for tur dal) so even if richer farmers see a loss in overall production, the price makes up for it, while poor farmers lose much more. Lastly, as anybody who has navigated government compensation mechanisms knows, having good documents, large plots, and social-economic-political pull is key to actually receiving it, and that too, in time.

None of this is unknown. These problems are well documented from a long history of droughts, floods, and the variety of crop-related disasters that the Indian farmer and state have had to deal with since 1947. Climate change has only made the severity and frequency of the problem greater, not radically changing how the farmers suffer or the state works.

One would presume, therefore, that a plan should not have been difficult, that such problems could have been anticipated. In fact, if the Basavaraj Bommai-led state government had acted in a timely manner, an effective state response to a problem affecting the livelihood of people dependent on a traditional crop would have been an excellent basis for election messaging. At least, they would have had more to talk about when they spent Rs 44 crore on advertisements before the elections.

It failed comprehensively. Even as the election results were coming in, farmer organisations were accusing the state government of being niggardly in offering compensation. Some of this may be blamed on the inefficiency and infighting of a state BJP unit that was trying to reinvent itself and hiving off an older guard, but more fundamentally, the BJP at the central and state levels both have made little attempt to understand the challenges of climate change at the rural level. The clearest indicator of this was the three disastrous farm Bills that Modi proposed, whipped through parliament, and then had to withdraw in the face of sustained protests.

In the face of uneven rainfall, more frequent floods and droughts, and falling groundwater levels, the three farm Bills proposed only the creation of a national market for agricultural products. Instead of offering the security of livelihood and the preservation and revival of degraded ecosystems, all that the legislation offered was corporatisation.

This urban-centric worldview is possibly based on much of Modi and Shah’s experience in Gujarat, which was already one of the most urban states in India when they came to power, as it is based on an analysis that as India urbanises, the rural and agricultural population can be ignored for retaining power. (It is worth noting that the most successful agricultural initiative in Gujarat is the use of solar water pumps. This is based on being able to sell excess electricity to the grid, and helps cooperatives of large farmers. The marginal farmer is invisible and irrelevant.)

Both the opposition to the farm laws and the mismanagement of the tur dal crisis in Karnataka seem to indicate that such an exclusively urban vision comes at an electoral cost. More importantly, though, every party in power in a state has to start understanding that the nature of the climate crisis means that problems such as unseasonal rains, killer heatwaves, floods, and droughts will occur at higher frequencies and with greater severity. Nor will these problems remain isolated to the agricultural sector, even if that is where they have the most impact.

So far, political parties have largely paid lip service to the challenge of climate change, if they have spoken of it at all. Receiving large sums from businesses invested in the coal, oil, transport, and real estate sectors, political parties have known well what to focus on. But if all that money cannot save them from crippling defeat at the elections, maybe the issue of climate impacts might actually be starting to become an electoral one.

Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.