The BJP government is being put to test for the first time since farmers started protesting at the Delhi borders. With the upcoming assembly elections in four agriculture states – West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – it is imperative to see the rhetoric that the party employs to deflect people away from the three impending farm laws. On the other hand, for opposition parties in these states, this is the perfect time to make hay in the sun.
However, not all hay should be the same. All four states are agrarian-based economies, but their response to the farmers’ movement has varied vastly. While Assam and Kerala have shown a damp, often muted response, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, contrastingly, have been more aggressive in their stance. The agrarian demography and infrastructure of each of the four states is quite different from the other.
Let us look at the response of each of these states to gauge how the ongoing agrarian movement will shape the upcoming campaigning and election result.
West Bengal is the largest food grain producing state in India. It overtook Uttar Pradesh in 2018-19 and emerged as the top state in vegetable production, accounting for 15.9% of the country’s total vegetable production (on an area that constitutes only 4.67% of the total cultivable land in India). Since early in December, the state has actively participated in the movement being led by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana. Left parties and farmers’ groups blocked railway lines and highways in Bengal. Even their current CM Mamata Banerjee has asserted the repealing of the “draconian laws” and condemned the Delhi Police time and again.
Seeing the agitation in Bengal, especially with the elections less than three weeks away, farmers unions sitting at Delhi, including Rakesh Tikait’s Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), will be visiting the state to attend one of the Mahapanchayats on March 13, just 14 days ahead of the polls. This comes just as the BJP had started gaining more traction in the state over the past year.
Now, what awaits is the result of the clash of the dissenting forces with the presence of the BJP in one of the most politically charged states.
Assam has the second-highest fruit production in India and 70% of its population is dependent on agriculture for livelihood. Yet, the Assamese farmers’ community has been eerily silent on the farmers’ agitation. This can be explained by the history of agriculture in the state since British raj.
As the colonial rule imposed heavy taxes on Assamese peasants, they started selling off land to mid-level revenue officials, leading to unequal distribution of land. Even today, 20% of the farmers hold as much as 70% of the state’s farmland. Since most of the large farmers in the state produce tea, they hardly demand anything agricultural reform from the government.
In the case of the three farm laws, these farmers will not get affected by corporatisation of the sector. Instead, they might get a better price if the laws get implemented. Even in case of small or marginal farmers who grow rice, only 0.2% of them avail public procurement at the MSP. The state only has 24 regulated APMCs and most farmers sell their produce locally at a low price. Hence, the shutdown of the mandis wouldn’t make much difference to them.
Nevertheless, many farmers and students burned copies of the three bills during Bihu festival in January along with meji (wood) to ward off evil.
Also with 70% of its population dependent on agriculture, Tamil Nadu’s response to the farmers’ agitation in Delhi has almost been opposite to that of Assam. The state has been one of the most vocal supporters since the sit-in began in November. While the AIADMK-formed state government has supported the Centre, the main opposition party of the state organised rallies in the state on Republic Day and held a one-day hunger strike.
Many farmers associations and labour unions in the state have also been active participants in the national movement. Many have been camping at the Singhu border since November 27 or driving towards Delhi on tractors, educating people on the laws on their way. In Tiruchirappalli, president of the National South Indian Rivers Inter-Linking Farmers Association even organised a ‘plough’ rally demanding withdrawal of the three laws.
To appease the state, last week, PM Modi inaugurated several infrastructure projects – including the Chennai Metro project and renovation of the Grand Anicut Canal System – besides congratulating the state for its contribution to the defence sector. Whether the Dravidian sentiment in the state along with the pro-agriculture stand will be able to overtake the BJP and its allies is yet to be seen.
Kerala is one of the few states to have high agriculture income without a good Centrally-funded APMC infrastructure in place. Instead, farmers sell their produce – mainly coconuts, rubber, cashew and spices – at the State-funded Vegetable and Fruits Promotion Council or Eco-shops. Through the Council, farmers can sell their produce at MSP. Kerala is the only state to have an MSP on vegetables and has an average income per agricultural household of Rs 11,888 as against the national average of Rs 6,426.
This is why the anti-farm laws movement did not gain as much momentum among farmers in Kerala. However, there have been minor protests across Kerala such as the infinite protest organised by the joint farmers council in Thiruvananthapuram. Around 400 farmers from Kerala also joined the ongoing agitation near the Rajasthan-Haryana border against the farm bills. In another gesture to extend support, farmers in Kerala sent 16 tonnes of pineapples from Vazhakulam, popularly called the ‘Pineapple City’, to the protestors at the Delhi borders.
The Left has had a consistent presence in the State and the BJP is yet to break through that influence. And this year’s election amid the protests might not be the year for them.
Now that the BJP has taken the reputation of an anti-farmers government for many, its credibility seems to stand on slippery ground. Whether the party will be able to win with the same ideological stand for all four states or come up with a local rhetoric for each state is yet to unfold in days to come.