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Why BJP lost rural Gujarat

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Last updated on: December 21, 2017 09:34 IST
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'I hope the anger that Gujarat farmers have demonstrated is also reflected in other parts of the country in ensuing elections.'
'Only then will the ruling parties accept that something is terribly going wrong in the hinterland.'

'Since the media did not show rural distress, the pollsters too ignored it.' Photograph posted only for representational purposes. Photograph: Reuters

The Congress' revival in Gujarat stunned many even though it lost the assembly election to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Congress made maximum gains in rural Gujarat. Of the 109 seats in rural Gujarat, the Congress won 62. In contrast, it only won 15 seats in the cities.

Why did rural Gujarat oust the BJP after voting overwhelmingly for the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha election?

Devinder Sharma, below, distinguished food policy analyst, agricultural scientist, author and activist, tells's Syed Firdaus Ashraf why rural Gujarat voted against the BJP.


Going by the election results there appears to be tremendous anger among farmers against the BJP. Is it so?

One of the hidden pointers of the Gujarat election is the agrarian crisis that has been ignored for the last several years. This vote is primarily a reflection of that.

In April, you told me 'Farmers are dying and the country is rejoicing'.
Do you think the pollsters and exit polls missed this issue when they conducted their surveys?

Let us for a moment keep the pollsters aside. The problem is the mainstream economists and the media. They have deliberately ignored agriculture, taking it as a downmarket subject all these years.

The result is that when farmers were dying, we were rejoicing.

Even now we talk of the revival of the economy without even mentioning the grave tragedy on the farm.

The high growth rate does not reflect the kind of deep tragedy that we witness on the farms.

We were applauding this model as if rural India does not exist.

Ignored all these years, what do you expect the farmers to do?

The only way to express their anger is through their right of franchise.

They have to wait for five years to exercise their vote, and the Gujarat farmers have done it.

I only hope the anger that Gujarat farmers have demonstrated is also reflected in other parts of the country in the ensuing elections.

Only then will the ruling parties accept that something is terribly going wrong in the hinterland.

What are the reasons for the anger? The Gujarat model of development was considered to be an ideal one.

The Gujarat vote is simply a reflection of the agrarian crisis going on across the country. It is only because of elections that it has come into visibility (now).

What is happening in Gujarat is happening across the country, and much worse in certain regions.

Secondly, the Gujarat model of growth was banking on the growth of heavy industries which means giving them concessions like cheaper credit, land almost free of cost, giving electricity, water and so on and so forth. And this happened at the cost of rural areas.

How long can you convince people that growth is happening when they know their household economy is drying up?

How long can you tell people that we are trying to go for 8 to 9 percent growth when they know how difficult it is becoming for them to run their home?

This rosy picture has been relentlessly created by the media and mainline economists. They are the real culprits as they painted a rosy picture when the realities were quite different.

Even now, after the Gujarat verdict, mainline economists are not willing to accept that the shift in votes from the BJP in the Saurashtra region is a reflection of the direct link with rural anger.

The other category you spoke about are pollsters. They would have reacted on this issue if the media had been talking about. I don't think it is fair to expect some kind of brilliance from the pollsters. After all, they too come from the same urban mindset.

Since the media did not show rural distress, the pollsters too ignored it.

Till the Saurasthra results came out, the media was not even willing to acknowledge that there was something terribly going wrong in rural Gujarat.

One report said Gujarat's farming sector witnessed a remarkable 8.15 percent Compounded Annual Growth Rate between 2012-2013 and 2015-2016, and now that has fallen. Is it true?

Gujarat had good rainfall for 9 years between 2002 and 2011.

Once the rainfall became scanty, the crisis worsened.

The crisis was there, but the mainline economists as well as the policy makers refused to see it. It's like the pigeon closing its eyes when a cat approaches.

What made matters worse was the crash in prices.

After two years of back to back drought, 2016-2017 has been awful for farmers.

Prices of all commodities have crashed in the market and the government has no idea what to do about it.

The government has belatedly launched procurement at MSP (minimum support price) for farmers for cotton and groundnut crops, but in reality several reports have shown that farmers are getting 20 to 25 percent less than the minimum support price.

Why have the prices of commodities crashed?

Prices of some crops are internationally linked. Let's say, cotton. Prices of cotton have crashed internationally too.

Two years ago, cotton prices were around Rs 6,000 per quintal. Now it has come down to Rs 4,000 per quintal. During election time the government announces Rs 500 per quintal as bonus.

Do you think farmers don't realise that it is an election sop?

Look at the prices of groundnut, and pulses. This year the prices have crashed.

Across the country, name any crop -- potato, onion, pulses etc -- and you'll find the prices are on a downward slide.

Demonetisation had a role to play, but all put together farmers continue to get distress prices.

So what do you expect farmers to do?

For three years farmers suffered silently and the government looked the other side.

If you remember, at the time of the 2014 elections, Prime Minister Narendra D Modi had himself promised that if elected his government would give 50 percent profit over the cost of production as recommended by the (M S) Swaminathan committee.

That is one reason why rural India voted conclusively for the BJP in 2014. Farmers are still waiting for the promise to be delivered.

Are Indian farmers so well informed that they know about the Swaminathan report in detail?

Yes, they know. The one whose shoe is pinching, only he knows how painful it is.

Farmers have been living with the crisis all these years, and they know where the solution lies. They know that they are being denied their rightful income.

Modi promised them that his government will give them 50 percent of profit. Farmers could see a ray of hope in what Modi promised.

But eventually, the government went to the Supreme Court and filed an affidavit saying it cannot give what it promised. The farmers know this news too.

The major farmers' union in Gujarat is the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, which is an affiliate of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

The vote in Saurashtra clearly shows that the farm distress is so acute that even the BKS did not go along with the BJP. Or perhaps their hold on the farmers has weakened.

Surely, the farmers didn't go by the BJP's electoral promise. Let's accept: Farmers are not that foolish. They too can distinguish between a jumla and a commitment.

The agrarian distress is pan-India.

Take Madhya Pradesh, for example. Not a day passes when farmers are not on the streets protesting against the government.

The problem is not only in Gujarat, but all across the country.

The BJP has certainly pushed farmers' issues to the backburner all these years. This goes well with the dominant economic thinking that believes in pushing farmers out of agriculture.

In fact, there is another school of thought that says it is cheaper to import food then to grow it within the country.

Then RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, for instance, used to say that the biggest reforms would be when farmers are moved out from the villages into the cities, because cities are need of cheaper labour.

Cheaper labour is required for infrastructure, real estate and highways.

In other words, agriculture is being sacrificed to keep economic reforms alive.

This flawed economic thinking is what has acerbated the agrarian crisis.

Successive governments have therefore been creating economic hardship that forces farmers to quit farming.

A Gujarati friend told me farmers are partly to be blamed as they switch between cotton, pulses and groundnut only in Gujarat, and therefore they are in distress. They do not go for other crops. Why?

Please tell him to go and farm in a village.

These are the fellows who have done equally more damage to farmers.

This urban thought, which I find quite widespread, comes from a complete disconnect with the realities of rural India.

If you think getting farmers out of distress is so simple, why don't you go and demonstrate it yourself?

Tell your friend to stay in the village for some time at least.

Sitting in the city and romanticising about crop diversification is easy. It's like Mungeri Lal ke Haseen Sapne.

If it was so easy, you think the farmer wouldn't like to try it? But the reality is that whatever a farmer tries, what he doesn't know for sure is that the match is already fixed. He will continue to harvest losses.

The Narmada waters have reached Gujarat. Why has this not benefited the farmers of Gujarat?
Also, we have schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. Are these schemes not working on the ground?

I find this argument absurd. Educated people tell me that farmers are now getting crop insurance under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna so they should not be in crisis anymore.

What they don't realise is that the Bima Yojna only covers crop losses. It is not an insurance for profit.

After all, doesn't a farmer need to rear his family, provide education to his children, take care of the health expenses of the family?

Did you ever hear that the MSP a farmer gets includes house rent, education allowance for children, medical reimbursement? Why not?

Isn't a farmer a citizen who needs to get the basic entitlements that everyone in the city gets?

Bima Yojna is required, but it is like a social investment aimed at taking care of his crop losses. It is not an income for the farmer.

Don't the salaried class insure their vehicles, houses and also have life insurance?

Does it mean if their life and health is insured, they should not get monthly salaries?

Why do they then need the 7th Pay Commission? Let's be fair in our arguments.

My question, therefore, is, if you are giving farmers crop insurance that does not mean you are giving him his rightful income.

What farmers need is income, a profit over his cost of production.

To keep food inflation in control, successive government have denied farmers their rightful income. This is what I call as Farm Theft.

Just like 'wage theft' in the case of workers, farmers in reality have been penalised to cultivate food.

We must understand that what farmers need is income, and no amount of diversion into issues like mandir, masjid, Aurangzeb or Padmavati can address the terrible farm crisis.

They had no other way to express their anger, but to vote.

Are you saying that the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana is not working?

While the intent may be correct, the implementation has been awful.

The details that are available in the public domain clearly show that the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana has actually worked more as profit insurance for the insurance companies.

Roughly of the Rs 22,000 crore (Rs 220 billion) premium amount they collected, only Rs 8,000 crore (Rs 80 billion) was the amount spent on compensating crop losses.

The remaining Rs 14,000 crore (Rs 140 billion) plus was neatly pocketed by the companies.

I think there is no lucrative business than crop insurance.

It was a bonanza for the insurance companies, not for farmers.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf /