How Can We Understand India’s Agrarian Struggle Beyond ‘Modi Sarkar Murdabad’?

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Alf Gunvald Nilsen ( is professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria.
21 December 2018

India is witnessing a new wave of agrarian protest. Grounded in a deep crisis in the country's agricultural sector, these protests express a deep sense of disappointment in the economic policies of the Modi regime. This article discusses how the new agrarian struggle should be understood as a symptom of the disintegration of the Modi regime's project of authoritarian populism. However, the author proposes that addressing India's agrarian crisis will require far more than simply ousting the Modi government. He argues that today's crisis is grounded in the neo-liberal reforms that have shaped India's political economy since the early 1990s, and it is therefore necessary to counter the crisis with a definite break with neo-liberalisation.

When some 35,000 farmers gathered in protest in Delhi during the last two days of November, their ire against the ruling dispensation in India was more than evident (Parth/PARI 2018). Chants of “Modi Sarkar Murdabad! Murdabad! Murdabad!” echoed through the streets of the capital, and demonstrators were vocal in calling attention to their sense of betrayal by Narendra Modi and his government. “Modi promised to double our income but we can't even feed ourselves,” said one protesting farmer from Odisha (Al Jazeera 2018). “We are very angry with the central government,” said another demonstrator. “They have not fulfilled any of the promises they made for farmers.” (Lalwani 2018) 

Agrarian anger with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government is nothing, if not well founded. Modi, of course, came to power after having assured the Indian electorate that he would bring achhe din, but the good days have proven elusive in India’s countryside. Indeed, the condition of Indian farmers and rural workers has worsened since 2014 as the price of fuel and fertilisers have increased, while farm incomes and rural wages have decreased (Parsai 2018; Jadhav and Bhardwaj 2018; Financial Express 2018). It is a well-known fact that this pincer movement fuels level of indebtedness—a dynamic which many consider one of the key reasons behind the suicide crisis in rural India—but the Modi regime has failed to respond in an adequate manner to demands for loan waivers for farmers (Ghadyalpatil 2017). And finally, demonetisation—Modi’s supposed blitzkrieg against black money and corruption—has wreaked havoc on the agricultural sector by disrupting cultivation, crop sales, and credit networks (Scroll 2018). 

The fact that this anger has congealed in the form of organised protest is, of course, very significant. As I argue below, this seems to be a key part of a process in which Modi’s fusion of neo-liberalism and Hindutva in a project of authoritarian populism is beginning to disintegrate. However, there is something amiss in a narrative that has begun to emerge, in which the current agrarian struggle in India is seen to pivot on the single issue of the ousting of Modi and the BJP from power. This, I will suggest, is to both misunderstand and underestimate the nature of the challenge that rural protest poses in terms of constructing a counter-hegemonic political project in India today. The roots of the protests that we are witnessing run much deeper than the incumbent government, and therefore, a progressive antidote to the agrarian crisis also has to encompass much more than simply opposition to Modi’s authoritarian populism. 

Modi Unravelling?

Modi’s electoral victory and the rule of the BJP since 2014 have been based on a two-pronged project of authoritarian populism (Nilsen 2018a). On the one hand, Modi has been consistently portrayed as “Vikas Purush”—a man of development—who would scale up the growth miracle he claimed to have engineered in Gujarat to the national level. In doing so, an attempt has been made to tap into the frustrated ambitions that were generated by jobless growth during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era. On the other hand, Hindu nationalism has been mobilised in the form of a profoundly violent, majoritarian cultural politics that targets Muslims and Dalits in particular. Fusing these prongs is an overarching narrative that posits the Modi regime as an anti-elitist alternative to the dynastic politics of the Congress and denounces dissent as a betrayal of the national interest (Nilsen 2018b; Chacko 2018). 

This project represents the culmination of a longer process in which the BJP has expanded its vote base beyond the urban middle class and upper caste groups that have been its main pillars of support since its appearance on the political stage in the early 1980s (Hansen 1999; Jaffrelot 1996). During the 1990s, the party worked hard to expand its social base among India’s Other Backward Classes (OBCs)—or, as K. Balagopal (2011) referred to them—India’s provincial propertied classes (Jaffrelot 1998; Palshikar 2015; Desai 2016). This was achieved either by absorbing OBC groups directly into the party, as happened in Gujarat, or through the making of coalitions with other political parties (Desai 2011). The importance of this process was clearly visible in the results of the 2014 general election: in addition to securing 56% of the upper-caste vote, the BJP also secured 34% of the OBC vote (Sridharan 2014; Alder 2017). Indeed, the rural vote went overwhelmingly to Modi in 2014 (Bhardwaj 2018). And significantly, beyond the OBC votes, the BJP victory was also underpinned by the fact that it won 24% of the Dalit or Scheduled Caste (SC) votes and 38% of the Adivasi or Scheduled Tribe (ST) vote (Sridharan 2014).  

For almost two years following the elections, Modi and the BJP appeared to be unstoppable in the domain of electoral politics. At one point, the party was the dominant presence in 20 of India’s 29 states (Quint 2018; Wire 2018a). The pinnacle of the BJP’s consolidation of power was undoubtedly the Uttar Pradesh assembly election in March 2017, in which the party won 312 out of 403 seats and Yogi Adityanath, perhaps the foremost representative of unbridled Hindutva in the BJP today, came to power (Livemint 2017; Bhowmick 2017; Venu 2017).  

However, from late 2017 onwards, the electoral tide seems to have turned, slowly but surely. One of the first indications of this was the BJP’s poor show in the state elections in Modi’s home state, Gujarat, in December 2017. As Zoya Hasan (2017) has pointed out, the BJP, despite winning the elections, was left with the smallest majority the party had ever had during more than 20 years of dominance in the state. This scenario was a result, above all, of a steady erosion of support for the BJP in rural Gujarat, propelled in no small part by agrarian discontent (Mahaprashasta 2017; Pathak 2018; Upadhyaya 2017). The first half of 2018 witnessed a continuation of this trend, as the BJP lost important the by-elections in two prominent Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh to the Samajwadi Party. It also lost a Lok Sabha by-election in Bihar and a by-election for the state assembly in Jehanabad in the same state. As in Gujarat, agrarian distress played a key role in the BJP defeats in both states (Mahaprashasta 2018a; 2018b).  

These electoral setbacks have been paralleled by the emergence of a new wave of farmers’ protests in India. During the summer of 2017, protests and riots erupted in rural areas in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, both of which were then ruled by the BJP. In Mandsaur in north-western Madhya Pradesh, five farmers were shot and killed by the police during violent demonstrations in which farmers were demanding higher minimum support prices and loan waivers (Mitra and Santoshi 2017). The year also witnessed a long protest by farmers from Tamil Nadu at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The demand from the protestors, who carried the skulls of farmers who had committed suicide, was once again for loan waivers and government action on indebtedness (Mahalingam 2017). In March 2018, some 25,000 farmers marched from Nasik to Mumbai to demand debt relief, minimum support prices, and land rights. In September and October, large protests were organised in Delhi by the All-India Kisan Sabha and the Bhartiya Kisan Union respectively (Parth 2018; Agarwal 2018). In late November, 20,000 farmers marched from Thane to Mumbai to demand drought compensation, loan waivers, and forest rights for Adivasis (Wire 2018b). It is worth noting that these large-scale protests have been taking place against a backdrop of widespread and increasing unrest throughout India’s vast countryside, often rooted in the discontent generated by agricultural stagnation, unemployment, and state-sponsored land grabs (Kapoor 2016).  

The double helix of agrarian protest and electoral setbacks shook the Modi regime again—merely ten days after the November farmers’ march—when the BJP was ousted from power in the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh (Mahaprashasta 2018c). As commentators noted, the triple whammy was clearly underpinned by rural voters, both farmers and farm labourers, abandoning the BJP (Kanwal 2018). In other words, it seems clear beyond doubt that Modi’s success in extending and consolidating support for the BJP agenda of neo-liberalism and Hindu nationalism among rural subaltern groups is unravelling, largely as a result of the fact that the promises of growth, jobs, and prosperity have remained elusive. Moreover, the emergence of a new and radical Dalit–Bahujan politics that fuses opposition to caste-based discrimination with demands for land rights and dignified work has added further momentum to the reversal of the Hindutva advance on India’s rural margins (Pai 2018; Shepherd 2018; Vij 2018). 

Altogether 21 opposition parties rallied in support of the farmers’ march in Delhi in late November. “Farmers are not seeking free gifts from the government—only their rights,” Rahul Gandhi declared at Jantar Mantar (Jeelani 2018). This is significant in the sense that agrarian distress and farmers’ protests seem to have provided the opposition (that spent the first two years after 2014 scrambling for direction) with a rallying point for unity against the Modi government. If a tangible agenda to challenge the BJP is successfully hammered out, in which the demands that have been voiced by India’s unquiet farmers over the past 18 months are addressed, the general election of 2019 might well prove to be far less of a foregone conclusion than many have assumed. If so, rural India will have proven to be the rock against which the Modi wave finally breaks. However, there is no guarantee that breaking the Modi wave will be a sufficient antidote to India’s agrarian crisis. 

Beyond “Modi Sarkar Murdabad!”

India’s agrarian crisis—a crisis that has led to more than 3,00,000 suicides among farmers and farm workers in the last twenty years—is rooted in the very structure of the country’s political economy, and particularly the way that neo-liberal reforms have shaped that political economy since the early 1990s. Neo-liberalisation has led to a relative withdrawal of state intervention in the agricultural sector: public investment in infrastructure, for example irrigation facilities, has declined; trade protection for agricultural commodities has been removed, resulting in a drastic fall in prices; state subsidies of inputs such as seeds and fertilisers have been scaled down, while control over input and output markets has been relinquished to the private sector; financial liberalisation has led to a decline in institutional credit for agricultural operations; agricultural land has been transferred to non-agricultural use at a rapid rate and large scale (Patnaik 2002; Walker 2008; Reddy and Mishra 2010). It is neo-liberalisation, in short, that has given rise to the pincer movement of rising costs and declining incomes, as well as the resultant increase in indebtedness, that is at the heart of the current agrarian struggle.  

Drawing on a decade of research on the agrarian sector across several states in India, Shukla et al (forthcoming)[1] have detailed the nature of the livelihood crisis that has resulted from the impact of neo-liberal policies. First, the total amount of land that is available for household operational holdings has declined sharply from 125 million hectares in the early 1990s to 94 million hectares in 2011–12. This means that the average area of land available per holding is as little as 0.87 acres, which is not sufficient for anything remotely resembling a dignified livelihood for the 244 millions Indians employed in agriculture. Second, agricultural land is extremely unequally distributed in India, and inequalities have been escalating during and as a result of the process of neo-liberalisation. Today, only 7% of rural households have holdings greater than 2 hectares, but these households control 47% of the country’s land area. The remaining 93% do not have land at all, or are relegated to small and marginal holdings. About 40% of the agricultural workforce is wholly dependent on wage labour for their livelihoods, while the majority of cultivators have such small holdings that they need to supplement cultivation with wage labour. Given that agricultural wages are very low and agricultural work is intermittent, migration has become a necessity for survival (Breman 2016; Pattenden 2016; Shah et al 2017). 

This is a scenario that warrants much more than simply minimum support prices and loan waivers. Shukla et al (forthcoming) suggest that a comprehensive policy to address India’s agrarian crisis would require a fundamental restructuring of land–labour relations in the agricultural sector. They argue that this restructuring should begin with a moratorium on the transfer of agricultural land and the elimination of speculative land markets. This would, in turn, have to be coupled with a new land reform agenda to recover and redistribute surplus lands to landless households. However, such redistribution is only a necessary step towards addressing the crisis—it is not a sufficient measure as such. Given that smallholdings are not viable as productive units, cooperative farms have to be established, and these farms have to be federated across district, state, and national levels. However, redistribution of land and cooperative farms will not provide sufficient employment for the agrarian workforce. It will, therefore, be necessary to form labour collectives to engage in activities related to agriculture, for example, providing necessary inputs, or taking care of agro-processing, storage, transport, and distribution. In order to enable this, the corporate sector must be excluded from input and output markets.  

It goes without saying that a policy response of this kind is far beyond the parameters of the “inclusive neo-liberalism” that the UPA regime pursued from 2004 to 2014, in which social policies in the form of rights-based legislation were combined with further entrenchment of neo-liberal policies (Nilsen forthcoming). Indeed, the UPA did not even see fit to implement the recommendations for inclusive growth in agriculture as proposed in the 2006 report of the National Commission of Farmers (Swaminathan Report) that was established according to terms of reference laid out in the Common Minimum Programme (Ghosh 2018). This raises thorny questions for the opposition forces that lent support to the farmers’ march, especially given the central role that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have assumed in forging unity between the opposition parties. It is reasonable to ask what space there is within this emergent formation for a genuinely radical response to the ongoing agrarian struggle in India. 

Adding to the challenge of moving beyond a single-issue agenda of opposing the Modi regime, is the fact that the current agrarian struggle in India is propelled by very different social forces compared to the farmers’ movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Farmers’ movements such as the Shetkari Sangathana in Maharashtra and the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha represented the class of rich farmers that had emerged as a result of land reforms and the green revolution in postcolonial India, in other words, Balagopal’s provincial propertied classes proper. Crucially, these movements espoused an ideology that posited rural India—invariably referred to as Bharat—as an internal colony that was being exploited by the paschimikrit samaj (Westernised society) of urban India (Balagopal 2011: 206). The significant differences between the needs and interests of small and marginal farmers on the one hand and those of the rich and middle farmers, as well as the profoundly exploitative relations that existed between farmers and the agrarian working classes, were erased (Banaji 1994; Dhanagare 1994; Bentall and Corbridge 1996). As Sudhir Kumar Suthar (2018) has pointed out, the movement that is currently emerging is far more diverse, and there is significant representation of small and marginal farmers, landless labourers, Adivasis, and notably, urban youth from rural backgrounds (Krishnamurthy and Aiyar 2018). 

Christophe Jaffrelot (2018) has argued that this means that the policy response cannot be crafted with reference to an imagined kisan (farmer) interest that is unitary and uniform, and certainly not an imagined kisan interest that is modelled on the figure of the landed farmer. Simply put, there has to be a recognition of the facts that Shukla et al (forthcoming) call attention to: namely, that the countryside is shot through with inequalities and that the vast majority of India’s rural population are dependent on wage labour for their survival. This recognition must be reflected in policies that are attuned to the needs and interests of those who have been most marginalised and most exploited by India’s predatory economic growth. This is no doubt a difficult and daunting political task, but in a country where 11,300 farmers and agricultural workers committed suicide in the same year as 57 billionaires were reported to own as much wealth as the bottom 70% of the country’s population, the stakes are too high for anything else to be an option (Tiwary 2018; Jha 2017). 

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Alf Gunvald Nilsen ( is professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria.
21 December 2018