Village Ward Ho!

Uttar Pradesh assembly polls are the litmus test for BJP. If it wins this poll, it will gain a massive momentum. It is not for nothing that it is trying to woo the farmers of the state. Lots of promises have been made in the General Budget and beyond, including that the average income of the farmers will double by the year 2022. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi’s march is slowly finding traction in the state. Pramod Kumar looks at the larger picture surrounding the well-being of the farmers and the windfall gains it will bring to the parties.

Uttar Pradesh assembly polls are the litmus test for BJP. If it wins this poll, it will gain a massive momentum. It is not for nothing that it is trying to woo the farmers of the state. Lots of promises have been made in the General Budget and beyond, including that the average income of the farmers will double by the year 2022. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi’s march is slowly finding traction in the state. Pramod Kumar looks at the larger picture surrounding the well-being of the farmers and the windfall gains it will bring to the parties.

Like on everything else, Prime Minister Modi sounds confident when he talks about changing the face of agriculture in this country. He is of the belief that with the help of small steps, a tectonic shift can be achieved in this sector. And the most ambitious one is the promise to double the current income of an agrarian household by the year 2022. But he is not alone to have woken up to the farmers’ woes after a long slumber.

While he was making promises on his birthday, on the streets of Uttar Pradesh, Congress’ Rahul Gandhi was marching with his ‘Kisan Yatra’ insinuating that it is him who is the messiah of farmers after all. Needless to say, farmers, or rather their votes, are in the crosshair of the two of the biggest political parties in this country.

So, what has brought the issue of agrarian crisis and condition of farmers in the focus? No point for guessing the culprit is the upcoming Uttar Pradesh polls. Uttar Pradesh, like many of the other North Indian states, is a primarily agrarian state. Those invested in farming and allied activities make for the biggest bulk of voters here. A whopping 77 percent of the population is involved in agriculture and allied activities.

For that matter, across India, only 22 percent of the population (or 37.71 crore people) live in cities. The rest 83.35 crore still dwell in the villages. And as explained above, when we say agriculture and allied activities, the term does not mean merely farmers. It also includes agrarian labourers and others. Needless to say, from BJP to Congress, these two regional political powerhouses have understood the importance of this segment of society.

Says Atul Kumar Anjan, National Secretary of Communist Party of India and General Secretary of All India Kisan Sabha, “The ruling dispensation has reaped the benefit of betting on the youth in the 2014 elections. BJP knows very well that this segment is not going to support it again in such huge numbers. The next in line are the farmers. While BJP is dangling the carrot of doubling farmers’ income by the year 2020, Rahul Gandhi, who is the leader of the Congress Party which did nothing for the farmers for over a decade, is claiming the position of the messiah of farmers.”

While Rahul Gandhi is making promises left, right and centre, BJP is reminding farmers that they give them bank accounts. There’s of course no talk about what benefits these accounts brought to them. While BJP is desperate to cement its position at the Centre by winning Uttar Pradesh, Congress is equally desperate in stopping its juggernaut, and find its relevance once again.

Let’s look at the numbers involved here and do some maths. According to the official census figures released in 2011, of the 24.39 crore families in the country, as many as 17.71 crores come from agrarian set-up. Out of these, as many as 10.69 crores belong to the Backward Castes and 4 crores come from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The average monthly income of 75 percent of population living in villages is less than Rs 5,000 per month. In terms of numbers, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha lead the numbers in rural poverty. Those with monthly income of Rs 10,000 form the lion’s share of the rest 25 percent.

Only 4.6 percent of Indians pay income tax. As far as ownership of land is concerned, 46 percent of the rural population don’t own an inch of land. This roughly means that every third agrarian family in the village is landless. This is the segment that depends on manual and other kind of labour to run its household.

As many as 51 percent of rural population is earns daily wages; 30 percent is directly dependent on agriculture. Close to 14 percent of the rural population is employed in governmental, semi-governmental and private jobs. Of those involved in jobs, five percent work in the Government Sector whereas an additional 3.5 percent work in the PSUs. As many as five lakh families depend on rag-picking. This census survey conducted in 640 districts of the country also deduced that the sizeable section of the population does not get the benefit of large central government schemes. These numbers have been taken seriously by the ruling dispensation who wants to show some progress in this sector.

Says ex-Central Minister, Chaudhary Birender Singh, “Ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had once famously quipped that not even ten percent of the money allotted to programs reach the villages. In fact the exact words were ‘Of every rupee Planning Commission sends to villages, the village receives only 10 paise.’ Our visionary Prime Minister has done away with the Planning Commission itself. It has been replaced by Niti Aayog. Bank accounts have been opened to make it easy for the poor to benefit directly from subsidies.”

Political observers swear by the politicking prowess of Narendra Modi. They are awestruck by the way he first took over controls of the Party, then won the election with different tools. They also admit that some of the programs started by the government will bear fruit eventually. Sources maintain that research team has been given lots of power to formulate programs. The “Team India” at PMO works with open minds, according to sources, and is not averse to listening to and incorporating suggestions.

Take for example the issue of urea. No sooner than a designated expert team had suggested the use of Neem-Coated Urea, the decision was made that this be incorporated in the next General Budget. It is expected that this will alleviate the shortage of urea in the rural areas. People close to BJP maintain that after Modi’s accession to power, the PMO has started to find out what was the best way to reach to the people directly. In this regard, the PMO took a particular liking for a suggestion given by one of the employees of All India Radio’s ‘Listeners Research Branch.’ He was of the opinion that because of the power-outages, the villagers depend primarily on battery operated transistors and radios sets. It was also suggested that while youngsters preferred to listen to channels like BBC in the late evening, the older generation waited for the last news bulletin before going to bed. This suggestion led to the foundation of ‘Mann Ki Baat’ segment. This program depends heavily on feedback from listeners, we are told. Another suggestion by other researchers was regarding the advertisement. While maintaining that big advertisements were the proven medium to tell people about Central programs, there was a need for a change. Normally, these hoardings feature huge pictures of ministers whereas information takes a backseat. It was then decided that these hoardings will now only feature the picture of the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Modi naturally liked the idea.

This also brought windfall gains for the Field Publicity Department of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, which had fallen under neglect like the All India Radio in the last decade and a half. This has been done apparently to make people in the remotest of areas aware about the programs. The budget as of now is around Rs. 50 crores.

Says Kiren Rijiju, MOS Home, “The impact of our information campaign about government projects has started showing results in Jharkhand where farmers have started to protest against Naxals. Farmers have started to claim ownership of land.”

The government has done similar experiments with the ‘Kisan Channel.’ The PMO is directly involved with the Kisan Channel. It became evident recently when the PMO directed a complete overhaul of software used for this channel. The PMO was of the opinion that the present software is not beneficial in any way for the farmers and needed change. Also, the PMO was peeved that Kisan Channel was showing too many entertainment programs. They directed that these should be truncated. This has left many producers in limbo. These people had submitted earnest money towards the script of the programs. That money is stuck now. According to the guidelines by the PMO, new formats have been introduced.

Says S S Ahluwalia, Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, “How serious is this government for farmers can be seen in the fact that its third General Budget is focused primarily on farmers and agrarian woes. To increase farmers’ income and reduce their investment, the government has started as many as two-dozen programs. This was detailed in the PM’s speech from the Red Ford. To summarise the programs, the government is focusing on every aspect of the crisis right from the availability of arable land to right price in the market to fixing of Minimum Support Price, individually. We are turning these challenges into opportunities for the rural youths so that they can pursue their dreams.”

Sources claim that while PMO is focused on the programs, it also coordinates closely with the Party organisation as far as implementation is concerned. It is not for nothing that in this government, the Party office is almost as powerful as the PMO. The Party President office and offices of other senior leaders have been vested with lots of power. Which minister will grace what program is decided by the Party and not the government. Right ideologue Govindacharya quipped that this is different from the Congress culture of “enjoying the power.”

The third cog in this wheel is RSS. This organisation also keeps an eye on the working of the government. RSS has kept a watch outside the house of every minister. It has placed its trusted youths to keep an eye on the dealings of ministers. These emissaries send their daily and weekly reports to RSS headquarters in Nagpur. Many of the ministers are unhappy with this three-tier set-up but they can’t do much about this. How much effective is this setup is anyone’s guess. Sources inside BJP maintain that this compels the minister to fall in line. Any digression will throw them off track like what happened to the likes of Dr Harshvardhan, Chaudhary Birender Singh, Smriti Zubin Irani. If they follow the directives to the tune, then they get promoted like what happened with Prakash Javdekar.

The organisation is also falling over each other to add as many farmers as possible. Says Om Mathur, BJP’s in-charge of Uttar Pradesh and one of its General Secretaries, “We are trying to connect to the farmers through our organisation, and it has started investment of the farmers. But this has failed to happen. If government investment is less and MSP is high, then agriculture will again become lucrative. This shows that government is not worried about farmers per se. The previous government initiated the Swaminathan Commission Report, but threw it to the bin without carrying out any implementation. PM Modi had promised that he will implement this report for the all-round development of the agriculture sector. But it turned out to be another ‘Jumla’ like depositing Rs 15 lakh to the account of every individual was. The steps suggested in the report are being implemented in the South and are bearing fruits. The farmers are getting good price for their pulses. Had this report been implemented pan-India, this could have solved many problems. We could have saved billions of dollars that we spent on the import of the pulses from outside.”

As far as wooing farmers is concerned, Rahul Gandhi seems to have made a headstart. He is currently on a Kisan Yatra in Uttar Pradesh. Congress strategists had advised Rahul during UPA II that farmers were the biggest vote bank and they needed to be taken into confidence. Jairam Ramesh was instrumental in the ideation. With his efforts, the Rural Development Ministry had started the process of reaching out to the farmers. When farmers were beaten at Bhatta Parsaul in Greater Noida, Rahul Gandhi was dispatched on a two-wheeler. Congress also played well on the Land Acquisition Bill, and topped it by introducing the idea of linking the compensation with the market rate. It was only after this that Rahul Gandhi made it a priority to reach out to farmers all over India.

It is well known now that Rahul Gandhi is the first to reach any spot wherever there’s a case of atrocity against farmers. He has also hired a research team in his office that keeps him abreast of the programs launched for farmers and their problems. That’s not all, this team also gives input on where and which programs on farmers should Rahul participate in. It is on the advice of this committee that Rahul attended as many as 47 rallies and public appearances at the time of this report going for print. Rahul also never forgets to point out that PM Modi is infatuated with foreign travels and does not have time to address the issues faced by farmers.

The recently concluded Kisan Yatra in Uttar Pradesh was a carefully curated program suggested by Party strategist Prashant Kishore. Kishore has come up with a detailed road map that will launch brand Rahul afresh among the farmers. In many ways, the Kisan Yatra of Rahul Gandhi draws parallel to the Sadbhavna Yatra launched by his father Rajiv Gandhi who had crisscrossed Uttar Pradesh through road and railways in the early 90s.

In this new avatar, the Yatra will not only link Rahul with farmers in the state, it will also boost his sagging approval ratings. However, with Shiela Dixit and Raj Babbar in tow, the message seems to have diluted a bit. While there has been criticism regarding Rahul’s use of “Hinglish,” sources close to Congress swear that the program is finding traction among the farmers who feel cheated by the ruling dispensation at the Centre and the State. They see it as a golden opportunity to find traction in the electoral politics of the state. Congress is indeed benefitting from this campaign and Rahul’s image among the farmers is on the upswing.

However there are pitfalls as suggested above. Had this yatra only focused on farmers, it could have been a game changer. However, as happens with Congress, others join the bandwagon as well and dilute the message.

As per the road map created by Prashant Kishore, the Yatra was to start in Balia in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and was to terminate at Bhatta Parsaul in Greater Noida after crisscrossing the state. The idea was to take Rahul on those roads which are less travelled, quite literally; as in, he was to pass through areas which are not generally preferred by politicians. It was meant to be Rahul’s introduction to the real rural belt.

The program was fool-proof. Lots of research went into this and a targeted budget was issued. However, the Congress leaders also added the additional goal of launching Shiela Dixit and Raj Babbar through this yatra, apart from reviving the organisation. Ghulam Nabi Azad’s ideas were incorporated and now this Yatra is passing through cities and semi-urban areas instead of the rural belts as initially defined and planned.

Kishore had initially also planned to include the probable candidates in the Yatra, but this idea was unceremoniously shot down by the senior leaders from the Party. Kishore was categorically told that to select candidates was Party’s duty, not his. The conflict came to head and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Kishore to operate. A section inside the Party says that even after spending such amount of money, if we are looking at 60-65 seats at the most, then this was a futile exercise. Kishore, who is known to be level headed, had refused to be embroiled in this mud-slinging match and ignores the barbs sent towards him.

However, grassroots Congress workers swear that this Yatra has made Congress the “talk of the town.” There is a clear and marked spike in the number of people who are enthusiastic about meeting and listening to Rahul Gandhi. The places from where the Yatra has passed, remain abuzz with Rahul’s name for days to come. Says Pramod Tiwari, senior leader of Congress Party, “A positive thinking about Rahul Gandhi is slowly developing among the people. Farmers have started to understand that Rahul Gandhi cares for their problems and genuinely thinks about their issues. The target of Kisan Yatra is being achieved slowly. This is also strengthening the Party organisation.”

Speaking to TSI, Jairam Ramesh says, “The present ruling dispensation is doing hollow promises, which it has no intention of keeping. Modi took youths for a ride in the last election. However people have now realised that most of his promises are as bombastic as his claims. That’s why he has shifted his focus on another segment this time, which is farmers. The Jan Dhan Yojna is such a sham and a hogwash. It has become a White Elephant. Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra has exposed Modi’s promises. This will benefit Congress in the UP elections in the short run and national politics in the long one.” Seeing that both the parties are focusing on villages in general and farmers in particular, the polity and politics of India will see a tectonic shift in the months and years to come. The battleground has shifted from the social media war rooms to the dusty streets of the villages. How will India’s two big parties come to terms with the changing realities is anyone’s guess.