Given that the kisan has long been the centrepiece of Indian politics, the killing of five farmers in police firing in Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday should be a wake-up call to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In the wake of their deaths, farmers in the state continue to protest, demanding loan waivers and better prices for their produce. And Madhya Pradesh is not the only state where the agrarian community is extremely disgruntled. In neighbouring Maharashtra, farmers have been agitating since May 30 – a protest that has led to violence as well as suicides. In April, farmers from Tamil Nadu had carried out a month-long protest in Delhi, going to the extent of stripping, shaving half of their heads and drinking their urine in a bid to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attention.
Clearly, India’s farmers are in dire straits as the country grapples with a full-blown agrarian crisis. Yet, instead of showing leadership and assuaging the fears of the Indian farmer, the BJP has failed to evolve any sort of response. In fact, its public messaging – crucial in a democracy – has been abysmal.
On Thursday, Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh called off a cabinet briefing and press conference, a surprising move given that the media briefing would have been an ideal medium for the government to explain how it is tackling the agrarian crisis and to signal to the people the BJP’s leadership at this vital time.
To make matters worse, Singh then headed to a public yoga function, demonstrating a variety of health exercises with televangelist-turned-consumer goods tycoon Ramdev. The optics of the Union minister responsible for agriculture spending his day doing celebrity yoga even as Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was arrested trying to enter the town where the five farmers were shot dead might end up singeing the BJP.
A day before Singh took to yoga, the Modi government flooded newspapers with full-page advertisements boasting of the success of India’s agriculture sector. Again, that this came just a day after the farmers in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh had died protesting their economic condition made the advertisements seem particularly hollow.
The BJP’s mismanagement of the optics of the situation has been made worse by Modi’s steadfast silence on the matter. Otherwise a loquacious speaker at global events – Modi’s tweets on international killings and disasters are out faster than most other world leaders – the prime minister has preferred to not speak in public about India’s farm crisis, thus giving the Opposition another handle with which to target the government. The Congress has taunted the prime minister, saying he has had time to meet Bollywood stars but is too busy to meet India’s farmers.
Smug in power
The BJP’s cavalier approach to this crisis might be driven by what it feels is a lack of a viable Opposition that can challenge it at the hustings. This is partially true. In BJP-ruled Maharashtra, for example, the Congress has been mostly absent in the farmer strike, till now. In fact, the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s ally in the state government, might have played more of a role in needling the ruling party than the Congress.
The situation is similar in Madhya Pradesh, where the farmer agitation is led by farmer groups, not the Opposition Congress.
In Gujarat, where Assembly elections are scheduled for December, while the BJP has made arrangements to nip farmer discontent in the bud, chances of it not being re-elected are low. The state government has already managed to tackle a bloody agitation led by the powerful Patel caste for reservation rights in 2015.
Yet, even as the BJP is confident about its political strength, it might be instructive for it to recall the fate of Rajiv Gandhi. In the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, Rajiv Gandhi won an unprecedented 426 seats and with hardly any other national party on the scene (the BJP won two seats) and the Congress’ glorious history behind him, he had every reason to be confident. Yet, in the next election, the Congress’ Lok Sabha seats were reduced by more than half and Rajiv Gandhi lost the prime minister’s seat. Politics is a fast-moving game and there is no bigger stake than the farmer’s vote. The BJP needs to get its house in order and treat the current agrarian crisis with the seriousness it deserves.