After Gujarat 2017: Can BJP’s Communalism Make Up for its Agrarian Neglect?

While Modi continues to be in denial of agrarian distress in the country, many in the BJP have spoken out about the centre's indifference. Will the centre be pushed to stem the agrarian disaffection before the next slew of polls or will they manage with stoking communal fire?

 

After the Gujarat verdict was out, the signals emanating from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “victory” address were unmistakeable. Far from acknowledging the existence of an acute agrarian distress that cost the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 13 seats in Saurashtra and two in North Gujarat since the 2012 elections, Modi projected the win as an endorsement of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act that had shaken the BJP’s base even in cities and towns. Modi showcased the arrival of a “get up and go” neo-middle class which, he noted, was not content in  thinking small like the preceding generations, celebrated his genre of “development”, and decried the revival of “casteism.”

Modi’s last point was an allusion to the emergence of the young troika of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani, each of who represented an antagonistic caste grouping but managed to co-exist in a larger social coalition that was put together in these elections by the Indian National Congress. Early assessments suggested that Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh delivered the votes of the Patels, backward caste Kshatriyas and Dalits in varying quantums to the Congress, though the amount of vote transfer has to be worked out. 

 

Gujarat's Caste Alliances

Modi’s “rejection” of Mandal politics, that the BJP had approved, adopted and refined to a craft in several past elections, including those in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to the prospective influence that the young trio could exercise in Gujarat’s politics. But far from being knee-jerk, it was a considered response to the tremendous potential that caste alliances had in the state’s politics until the 1990s. The potential had touched an apogee when the Congress bagged 149 of the 182 assembly seats in 1985 under the leadership of Madhavsinh Solanki, the author of the KHAM (KshatriyaHarijanAdivasiMuslim) coalition. 

In 1990, as a state leader and strategist, Modi had forged an alliance for the BJP with Chimanbhai Patel and propped him as the chief minister with the BJP’s Keshubhai Patel as the deputy Chief Minister. 
Modi is all too aware of the formidable challenge a KshatriyaDalitMuslim combine can pose, even if it is assumed that the Patels will not be a permanent part of it because of the community’s primary allegiance to “Hindutva” (it was the BJP’s sword arm in the communal riots) and its resentment towards the backward castes and Dalits. The Adivasis, who vacillated between the Congress and the BJP in recent elections, can always return to the Congress, their first choice. 

In the present elections, the Congress did not work hard enough to keep the tribal votes by aggressively pitching for issues like the Forest and Land Rights Act like it did in the previous polls, while the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated  Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has propagated its theory of shuddhikaran (purification) and ghar wapasi (homecoming) for years and even coerced sections of the tribals to “reconvert” from Christianity to Hinduism. 

Hence, Modi urged people (read the Hindus), almost combatively, to reject “jaatiwaad” (casteism) and appealed to them to unite under the banner of “development”. As the Prime Minister, he could not have openly invoked “Hindutva” at a public forum, although the BJP’s local leaders and cadres are hard at work in polarising communities in several election-bound states.

Was Modi’s repeated reference to the GST Act a hint that from now on the BJP would prioritise the urban over the rural? That it would focus on consolidating its support among traders, entrepreneurs and the nebulous neomiddle class that contain a large number of educated, skilled but jobless youths? Gujarat’s Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani, who won as an Independent from Vadgam with the Congress, Left and Aam Admi Party’s support, stated in an interview to the news channel Aaj Tak that the next Lok Sabha election will be a “battle” between an “aged, tired and irrelevant” Modi and the teeming number of jobless but “charged up and energetic” youth. In a sense, Mewani upended the BJP’s paean to the ambitious and the aspiring population and instead mirrored the sense of restiveness which is bothering them.

 

BJP’s Discontent with Modi’s Agrarian Neglect

The BJP at large did not necessarily share the Prime Minister’s outlook. Nanabhau Patole, who was a member of parliament (MP) from Maharashtra’s BhandaraGondiya seat resigned from the Parliament and the BJP in the midst of the Gujarat polls, citing the centre’s “indifference” to the agrarian sector as the main reason. In the past too, MPs from Uttar Pradesh have spoken out on rural neglect in the parliamentary party meetings but were silenced. 

Since the Gujarat verdict established that the BJP’s gains accrued in bulk from the cities, the MPs from predominantly agricultural states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and even Karnataka are seeking a mid-course correction, aimed at appeasing the farmers, the poor and the marginalised. Karnataka will vote in April–May 2018 while MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will vote towards the end of the year.

BJP has been in power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for nearly 15 years while Rajasthan was wrested from the Congress in 2013 with a huge majority. The BJP has viewed Karnataka, which has a Congress government, as a “low hanging fruit” ready to be plucked. 

In the case of Madhya Pradesh, average total earnings of its agricultural households lag behind the national average, despite recording a 7.5% average growth rate during the 2015–16 fiscal year (Sharma 2017). The report by Sharma deduced that earnings from labour and non-agricultural sources have not kept pace, putting the small and marginal farmers working as farm hands at a disadvantage. 
In September this year, Rajasthan was gripped by a farmers’ protest in the Shekhawati region, helmed by the All India Kisan Sabha.  Among the demands was a total farm loan waiver, implementation of the recommendations of the M S Swaminathan Committee, lifting the ban on cattle trade enforced in 2017 and a pension for farmers. The agitators said they had held the BJP to its election manifesto which promised them production cost, with a 50% profit in the minimum support price, a bonus in case the Minimum Support Price was less than the production cost, and a subsidy for milk producers. Not one of them was fulfilled as a result of which farmers were compelled to borrow usurious loans after spending money on production costs (Jain 2017). The Vasundhara Raje government bought peace with the farmers after assuring them to waive off debts of up to Rs 50,000.   

Will the centre be pushed to stem the agrarian disaffection before the next slew of polls? Apparently, the BJP is in denial of the existence of disaffection. Its general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP, Bhupender Yadav, who was in charge of the Gujarat elections, said in an interview, 

I will not call it rural distress, but if in some places [in Gujarat], the party has got fewer seats, we will take our message of vikas (development) and meet the expectations of people in whatever way we can. (Jha 2017)

 

Managing with Stoking Communal Fire 

The videographed killing of a Muslim migrant to “contain love jihad” in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand was backed by some BJP ministers and legislators including Kiran Maheshwari, a close associate of the chief minister. In MP, Christmas celebrations have been marred with attacks on priests and carol singers by a still-to-be-identified Hindu group. Typically, the BJP attempts to split the polity on religious identities when its governments were confronted with economic and caste problems, hoping that the tactic will work as it did in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh in the past.

 In Karnataka, where the BJP is beset with infighting and caste asymmetry and faces a tough challenge from the chief minister Siddaramaiah, BJP is stoking communal fires in the North Kannara district, its erstwhile stronghold. In the 2012 elections, the BJP won only one of the six seats in North Kannara. 

Two weeks ago, the death of a young Hindu man Paresh Mesta set off communal tension. The local BJP MP, Anant Kumar Hegde, who is a junior minister in the centre, warned of more violence and blood-letting in a Facebook post after 60 BJP workers were arrested (Ameerudheen 2017).

Indeed, the variations in seats won in Gujarat between the two phases suggest that the BJP did substantially better in the second round in the south and central parts than in Saurashtra and the north. While its dominance over central Gujarat’s powerful dairy cooperatives, the dissipation of anger among the Patels, and a split in the tribal votes may account for the difference, there is evidence that the ramped up rhetoric used by Modi, including the theme around Pakistan, was received positively by the voters, most of who have been nurtured on communal discourses since the 1990s.

 

References

Ameerudhin, T A (2017): “BJP Continues to Fan Communal Tensions in Coastal Karnataka Over a Young Man’s Mysterious Death”, Scroll, 18 December.

Jain, Shruti (2017): “At Farmers’ Protest in Rajasthan, Anger at Modi Government Policies and State Indifference,” Wire, 11 Sep, https://thewire.in/176144/farmers-protest-sikar-rajasthan/

Jha, Prashant (2017): “People Have Understood Hardik Patel Worked as a Congress Front in Gujarat Elections: BJP leader”, Hindustan Times, 20 Dec, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/people-have-understood-hardik-p...

Sharma, Rajendra (2017): “Post Agrarian Unrest, Madhya Pradesh Stares at Huge Fiscal Crisis,” Times of India, 21 Jun, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/post-agrarian-unrest-mad...

 

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