Note: This article was originally published on October 23, 2019 at 9 pm and is being republished on October 24, 2019 at 1 pm.
Ambala/Karnal/Yamunanagar: Sumer Singh, a marginal Sikh farmer in Kurukshetra, would rather identify the Manohar Lal Khattar-led BJP government with businessmen than with the agrarian community. Sitting at a corner of the Thanesar grain market, where he had come to sell his 24 quintal paddy crop, Singh claims, “Vyapariyon ki sarkar hai, zamindaron ki nahin (‘It is a government for the businessmen, not farmers’)”.
Around 100 metres away, 34-year-old Loha Sangwan, a Jat farmer, seemed to agree, “Kisaanon ka toh naash kar diya (‘They have destroyed farmers).”
“Kuch giney chuney bade logon ka fayada hua hai bas is sarkaar mein. Baaki saare atma hatya ki kagaar pe aa gaye (‘Only a select few benefitted from this government. Others are on the verge of dying by suicide’),”says another farmer at the grain market, Hari Singh.
A neglected electorate
Across north Haryana, farmers expressed a similar sentiment against the Khattar government. They complained of a steep rise in input costs in farming over the last five years and a lack of commensurate returns. But what has really ticked them off is the indifference that the state government has allegedly showed towards their mounting problems.
“As elections approached, the chief minister began reaching out to farmers. He claimed that the online payments his government has initiated will streamline sale and purchase of crops. He also claimed that the government is now purchasing bajra, jowar and cotton. But what he is hiding is that government agencies are not permitted to buy anything more than 10 quintals of these crops,” Pratap Singh Dhariwal, a farm leader in Kurukshetra, tells The Wire.
“As far as the two most important grains in Haryana, paddy and wheat, are concerned,” he adds, “no farmer is getting the full minimum support price. You can go and enquire in any of the mandis.”
Farmers The Wire spoke to in grain markets confirmed that they were getting paid at least Rs 200 less than paddy’s stipulated MSP of Rs 1,835 per quintal. In effect, the reduced rates nullify benefits which could have come as a result of an increase in MSP announced earlier this year by the Centre.
“Mostly, we are told that the moisture level in our Basmati crop exceeds the government’s limit of 17%. Thus, they buy it at reduced rates. But the problem is that the receipts which we get from arhtiyas (commission agents) show we sold our crop at MSP. Doesn’t it smack of a scam?” Dhariwal asks.
The landless labourers, a majority of whom are Dalits, also spoke with similar resentment against the Khattar government.
“Kuch punjipatiyon ke liye hi kaam karti hai yeh sarkar (‘This government works only for a few moneyed people’),” a 60-year-old labourer tells The Wire in Sanwla village near Kurukshetra.
He went on to elaborate. “Despite all big promises, our wage rates haven’t increased even one bit. We were getting Rs 100 per day in 2014, it’s still the same.”
“Some of our community members applied for jobs that the state government announced. For some 500 positions of clerks, around 15 lakh people applied. My son too applied but his assigned centre was in Rewari district, which is around 200 kilometres away. He would have had to spend at least Rs 3,000 had he decided to go. He chose not to as we did not have that much money to spare,” he says.
With farmers’ resentment against the business community rising with their problems, one would be forgiven for assuming that trade, perhaps, was doing well in Haryana. Yet, all the markets that the correspondent visited wore a deserted look well within the festive season.
A gloomy Diwali and Karva Chauth
On the eve of Karva Chauth, a Hindu festival in north India, at Ambala, the bazaars may have been well lit, but the shopkeepers did not have anything positive to say.
“Karva Chauth and Diwali are our biggest business seasons. But our sales have sharply come down this year – about 50% compared to last year. We may have to suffer losses but we have been careful after last year’s poor experience, and many of us have procured only as much as we are confident of selling,” a cloth merchant in Ambala says.
The supposed “moneyed” class are also not in the best of spirits. At Jagadhri plywood market, Pramod Chauhan, president of the commission agents’ union, speaks about the sinking state of affairs in the biggest plywood-making centre of Haryana.
“We link factory owners with farmers who plant eucalyptus or poplar trees. We give some amount as advance to the farmers, sell their goods at less than 5% commission, expecting timely payments from the factory owners. But we haven’t received a majority of payments in the last two years,” he says, displaying pending bills that date back to 2017.
Jagadhri’s plywood arhtiyas sat on a two-day strike recently at the district administration office, demanding that government officials intervene in the conflict between factories and agents and clear the dues.
Multiple commission agents The Wire spoke to recount how their payments have been delayed by the factory owners. “Because of the delay, the whole industry has been in crisis. Plywood was one of the most profit-making industries of Haryana. But the last three years have seen an unprecedented decline in business. I hope it is not irreversible,” says one of them.
Chauhan, too, says what most businessmen seem to now believe across Haryana, “The BJP and Khattar government has benefited only the super rich, not small shopkeepers and businessmen.”
Those in the plywood factories, meanwhile, claim that the demand for plywood has never been this low.
“Remember, we are not big udyogpatis (industrialists). We are typically small and medium enterprises. Over the last one year, at least 450 big and small units have shut in Yamunanagar. That is 25% of all the units here. The others which remain open have drastically cut down their strength. Units which used to have three or four (plywood) presses are now working with only one. One of them is mine,” says Devender Chawla, president of the All India Plywood Manufacturers Association.
He explains that the delay in payments from their side is because of an unprecedented decline in the real estate sector, which was plywood’s primary buyer.
“Yamunanagar alone employed around 1.5 lakh people in the plywood industry. But once businesses collapsed, an estimated lakh people lost their jobs. The slowdown’s cascading effects have hurt not just the farmers but also us. Between 2007 and 2014, we grew a lot but since then it has only been a downward turn. In addition, we have still not recovered from the losses that we incurred because of demonetisation and a faulty GST,” said Chawla.
Rahul Gandhi’s message
Is it possible that even amidst resentment on the ground among a large section of Haryana’s population, BJP may still win the assembly election? Most who complained against the Khattar government seem to believe that there is currently no credible opposition party that is likely to challenge the might of the saffron party.
“Our village may vote for BJP again. We want to give them another chance. No other party in Haryana is in a position to defeat it,” says Sumer Singh, quoted in the first paragraph.
Similarly, commissioning agent Pramod Chauhan, with his Rs 15 lakh pending, says, “Overall, the government hasn’t done much but it has remained clean of corruption. At least one community does not take all the decisions.”
Chawla, the plywood factory owner, considers Congress or any other party “too divided” to give any tough contest to BJP. “Whatever votes the opposition garners will be because of people’s own will [to vote against BJP], not because of their own campaign,” he said.
BJP has crucially succeeded in polarising most communities against the influential Jats. Khattar is the first non-Jat chief minister in four decades. The apprehension among many communities that the state may have yet another Jat chief minister has had a strong impact.
“Although the BJP claims that it has the support from all the “36 communities” of the state, saffron party workers in north Haryana – where the BJP won 26 of the 27 seats in 2014 – has aggressively been creating a fear that a Jat may helm the affairs in a non-BJP government,” Kushal Pal, professor of political science at Dyal Singh College in Karnal tells The Wire.
“That the three primary opposition parties, Congress, and Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) are all led by Jat leaders (Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Abhay Chautala and Dushyant Chautala respectively) help the saffron party in their polarising campaign,” he adds.
The lack of a credible alternative may have prevented many in Haryana from voting against BJP. “We live in villages. We do not want to be identified as cross-voters if BJP wins. It looks like Khattar will be re-elected,” says a labourer in Sanwla. “At least that way, we have a chance of being heard.”
Yet one message from the Haryana ground is clear: former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s sustained campaign ahead of the Lok Sabha polls that the saffron party’s governments have favoured a few super-rich businessmen has penetrated deep into the hinterland. His accusation of cronyism against the BJP-led government appeared to have stuck to the Haryana electorate.
The Khattar government, too, is perceived as the same. It has sought re-election by invoking national issues like Centre’s move to dilute Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the Modi government’s strong stance on cross-border terrorism. As far as state-level matters are concerned, BJP has claimed that the Khattar government has raised transparency levels in governance and ensured better grievance redressal systems through the “CM’s window”.
However, the saffron party has left Haryana’s rising unemployment rate (at around 29%, joblessness in the state is highest in India) and deteriorating economic situation entirely unaddressed.
Barring a section of university-going youth who swayed towards BJP because of its campaign on national issues, most other sections of Haryana’s electorate are worried more about their livelihood, remain anxious and wonder why these issues were not talked about properly in the run up to the polls. This has aggravated the ground-level perception that the state government favours only the rich.
The Congress will have a lot to take away from the Haryana assembly polls. One of them may be Rahul Gandhi’s success at the political, if not electoral, front.