The rise of the rurals

The Bharatiya Janata Party's famed "Gujarat Model" gets a rude jolt in the state's recent polls, especially from rural communities in the Saurashtra region


Busting the myth of Gujarat's 'Growth Model'

Rural communities went against the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent Gujarat elections. Resentment among rural communities has been brewing since 2002 due to agrarian crisis. But it was for the first time that the Gujarat Model was put to test

By the end of May 2014, Gujarat had stopped being a living state. It assumed an identity—almost reaching mythical levels—called the “Gujarat Model”. It fuelled over 800 million voters’ aspiration, cutting across the rural and urban segments. Expectedly, this ensured India’s first post-independence born Prime Minister Narendra Modi storming Parliament with a historic win. For each of those 300 plus Members of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP or the NDA alliance) elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014, the “Gujarat Model” was the ticket to victory. Modi became the mascot of development. He was the chief minister of the state by then for 17 years. In a sample of 100 speeches he made during the election campaigns, “Gujarat Model” appeared around 700 times.

Cut to December 2017. BJP won its sixth consecutive state election. But in its victory, ironically, the dream run of the “Gujarat Model” got a rude reality check. The election saw both the ruling and the opposition parties claim victory. But the real story was in the details of how the state’s voters voted the BJP for its slimmest number of seats in over 22 years. Gujarat elections were more about the state’s precipitating rural distress than the electoral fortune of a ruling party. Close to 50 per cent of the voters in 2017 under the age of 34 years have not seen or voted a non-BJP government. Thus the narrow victory of the ruling party that used to be also backed by rural voters is a development demarche on the “Gujarat Model”.

Politics of water

Way back in February 2017, Ramji Patel was convinced that the spectacular economic growth of Gujarat meant nothing for farmers like him. For people like him it has always been a struggle for the basics. On February 14, the 60-year-old farmer was put behind bars for demanding water from the Narmada Dam canals, a project that Modi inaugurated just before the elections to further reiterate his model of inclusive development. Ramji was one among the thousands of farmers who were demanding water from canals just 15 kilometres from his village Upardal in Ahmedabad district. They were on a protest march to the state capital Gandhinagar. Police stopped them from going ahead and the resulting lathi-charge injured hundreds and many were thrown in jails.

Known for its cultivation of cotton, Saurashtra  region dealt a heavy blow to the BJP in the recent assembly elections (Photo: Sunny Gautam)

Their desperation for water was understandable. For years, they depended on groundwater which had turned saline in recent years. But the ruling dispensation always offered them the solution of canal water from the Narmada Dam. But for years that never materialised. Atmaram Patel, a farmer from Nani Kishol village in Ahmedabad district, says, “Despite Narmada canal passing in nearby areas for the last few years, we never got water. We have been pleading with officials and politicians but to no avail.” In the run-up to the elections, the state not only witnessed protests by farmers for water, but also for the right prices for their produce. There were protests by landed communities for reservations in government jobs and there were protests by fisherfolk against industrial projects impacting their catch. Each and every community belonging to every economic and social stratum protested or showed dissent. And their point of convergence: the economic growth didn’t yield benefits to all, particularly to the state’s over 50 per cent rural population.

The election results were just a democratic outcome of these brewing resentments. After an intense campaign by Modi, BJP managed to win just 99 assembly seats, a fall from 122 in the 2012 elections and its lowest ever tally since 1995. All these seats which it lost are in rural Gujarat; especially in Saurashtra region which has 73 per cent rural population. The rural population has retaliated and routed out BJP from many parts. Even border and tribal districts have hurt BJP. “The seven districts from where BJP was routed out are completely rural,” says Ashish Ranjan, senior researcher, Trivedi Center for Political Data, Ashoka University, Haryana. “In another eight districts, mostly the border ones, BJP got one seat in each,” he adds. This election also brought the rural-urban divide to the fore. The BJP lost its ground in rural Gujarat, but gained in urban areas.

Out of a total of 182 seats, the opposition party Congress along with its alliance managed 80 seats. The vote percentage of BJP increased from 47.8 per cent in 2012 to 49.1 per cent in 2017. The seats though reduced to 99 from 115. Whereas, Congress increased its vote share by 2.5 and reached to 41.4 per cent and increased its seats share from 61 to 80. Out of a total of 127 rural and semi-urban seats, the Congress got 71 seats—the party got almost 90 per cent of total rural seats. Out of a total of 58 rural seats, the Congress won 37 and BJP won only 20. In urban areas, the BJP won 45 seats and Congress won a mere 8, indicating a sharp rural and urban divide in voters’ preferences. The ruling party’s performance in Kutch and Saurashtra regions has been diminishing, where it won 23 seats in comparison to 30 seats of Congress. Known for the cultivation of cotton and groundnut, Saurashtra has almost rejected the ruling party. In the region, there are seven districts where BJP has been routed. These districts include Amreli, Morbi, Surendranagar and Somnath.

Sources: Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, Election Commission of India and Water Resource Department, Gujarat government

Going by the performance of the ruling party, there is a distinct link between its electoral fortune and a region’s intensity of agrarian economy. Experts divide Gujarat into three regions based on water availability and types of agriculture: North Gujarat, South Gujarat and Saurashtra. South Gujarat is the state’s most water-rich region accounting for 71 per cent of the state’s water resources. It is also agriculture-intensive with majority of farmers into cash crops like tobacco, paddy, sugarcane and banana. This region is also a hub of cooperatives that ensure better produce marketing. “So, in this region there is not much water crisis and also farmers don’t bother much for government’s minimum support prices,” says Sagar Rabari, Secretary of Gujarat Khedut Samaj, an association of over half a million farmers. Going by the recent farmers’ protests in the state, this region didn’t witness any major protests. The BJP won 26 out of 35 assembly seats in this region.

Now, let’s look at North Gujarat—the hub of cotton, groundnut and vegetable cultivation in the state and dominated by the Patel community—where BJP won 31 out of 51 seats. In the early 2000s, this region propelled the state’s agricultural growth with earnings from cash crops. The government, through community participation, invested heavily on small groundwater recharge structures in early 2000s after three consecutive droughts. But a significant number of farmers in this region depend on groundwater for irrigation. Most of these structures are now defunct as government programmes are focused on big projects like the Narmada Dam for irrigation. “In comparison to South Gujarat, this region is more water-stressed. Dependence on groundwater and constantly declining water levels has added to the cost of irrigation. So here, the farmers are out in the streets demanding better deal for their produces,” says Rabari.

This is the region of the state that has been in the limelight for its deepening agrarian distress. Farmers invest in crops like cotton and groundnut that require irrigation, despite depleting ground-water levels. All farmer suicide cases of Gujarat have been reported from this region. In Saurashtra, out of 11 districts, the BJP failed to win any seat in seven districts. It won 21 out of 54 seats; its lowest victory in terms of seats in the three regions mentioned above.

Farmers in Saurashtra have long been promised water from Narmada canals. After a long wait, they saw water flowing in nearby areas, but are not allowed to use it for irrigation purpose. Water is made available to industry but not to farmers. First, the Gujarat government has brought down the originally planned length of the canal network from 90,389 kilometres to 71,748 kilometres. Secondly, 31 per cent of even this revised canal network is still to be built. If we use the originally planned length, this percentage shoots up to 46 per cent. Most of this network is of the minor, sub-minor and field channels. This is the reason farmers at a distance from the main and branch canals will remain without water for a much longer time. Rebari highlights another crucial point saying that in absence of canal network, the government allocated water to industry more than what was planned earlier. This triggered resentment and precipitation of a perception that the government was more industry-friendly, even at the cost of farmers’ interests.

Dilip Vaddoria, sarpanch of Devalia village in Amreli district in Saurashtra, says, “Agriculture is gradually becoming tougher and farmers are not earning anything despite putting efforts the entire year.” In response, the state government just makes promises, he adds. Like, for the past 15 years, farmers have been promised the Satli dam to ensure irrigation water. But this promise has not been delivered. According to Dilip, a cotton farmer earns around R4,000 a year from one acre of land, in an ideal situation of availing minimum support price (MSP). For one acre of cotton farming, the input costs like irrigation and seeds amounts to R25,000 to harvest 600 kilograms of cotton. Government offers a MSP of R854 for a bag of 20 kg. Or, a farmer just earns R4,000 after one year of efforts. Realising this fact, farmers are leaving farming and moving to cities like Surat to work as daily wage labourers. Dilip shows around the village to count some 20 houses being locked. “All have migrated out; they used to be farmers.”

Farmers in this region say the increasing input costs have not matched with the government’s MSP. According to them input costs were much lower a decade ago. During the last assembly elections in 2012 and in the general elections in 2014, Modi blamed the then Union government of the United Progressive Alliance led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He promised a MSP of R2,000 per bag of 20 kg once elected as the prime minister. During the general elections BJP swept these regions, winning from all seats. After three and half years of the NDA government, that promise remains unfulfilled. Farmers now demand only R1,500, but that is also not being fulfilled. In October 2017, just before the elections, the state government promised to provide R100 extra after MSP. Then the MSP was R854 for every 20 kg of cotton. However, farmers say that the government, in fact, didn’t purchase cotton from farmers thus making that little bit earning also uncertain.

Price volatility of cotton further added to far-mers’ woes. The market price of cotton was R900, one of the lowest in recent years, when the state was going through assembly elections. Erratic weather and increasing pest attacks meant harvest of market-quality produce was low and farmers were not able to get the market price effectively. This is a drop of close to 25 per cent in market price from 2012-14, when it was R1,200.

Groundnut farmers also faced price volatility and lack of government help in ensuring a decent price. Before the elections, the government declared R900 for 20 kg of groundnut as its MSP. However, across markets in the state, farmers sold their produce at lower prices while hardly a few farmers could access the government procurement system. First, the government’s dedicated R500 crore funds for groundnut farmers as MSP was inadequate. Second, the government made it mandatory for farmers to first apply to be covered under the MSP and with the condition that their name must appear in a list finalised by the government to be eligible for procurement at MSP. It led to delay in procurement and government’s reimbursement for MSP. This led to a distress sale in Saurashtra when farmers sold groundnut at R750/20 kg as they couldn’t wait longer to avail the government rate. Gujarat is the country’s highest producer of groundnut and keeping in mind the situation and electoral impacts, the Union government directed its agencies for massive procurement. But that also couldn’t lift the farmers’ hope much. On the other hand, the market rate for groundnut is dictated by the wholesale price of groundnut oil. It was just R100/kg last November-December. Buyers couldn’t offer a price for groundnut that would be higher than this oil rate.

Rural misery

The elections of December 2017 just blew the lid of the rural distress Gujarat has been experiencing for decades. In fact, the “Gujarat Model” has many indicators of distress that the so-called less developed states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan also share. For example, despite being termed as an urbanised state, it has a large rural population. Close to 70 per cent of rural households are agricultural households. This is a level that just comes after Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and one of the top five states with such a high level of agricultural households.

In rural Gujarat, around 70 per cent of households’ monthly income is less than R5,000—less than R160 per day per family of five members. Out of this earning, close to 62 per cent comes from agriculture, not much behind Punjab’s 69 per cent. And electorally, BJP has been consistently voted out in these regions with visible agrarian distress. In fact, the main opposition Congress party has been getting above 38 per cent votes since 2002 elections, and its vote share comes mainly from such regions.

Jignesh Mevani, an MLA considered to be one of the most vocal youth leaders emerging in the recent elections, says, “The rejection of BJP by rural people has busted the myth about the Gujarat Model of growth which was used to win elections in the Centre and other states as well.” R S Pundir, professor and head of Agribusiness Economics and Policies department in Anand Agricultural University, says that productivity is not the basic problem. The main issue is marketing. He says that 40 mandis of Gujarat have been linked to eNAM. It is a pan-India electronic trading portal which networks the existing APMC mandis to create a unified national market for agricultural commodities.

However, none of the farmers were linked to this system. So in the end, the beneficiaries are brokers, businesspeople and not the farmers. He suggests that there is a need to promote self-help groups, cooperative models like the famous Amul from Gujarat. It will give farmers the bargaining power and good price for their produce. It should be remembered that 84 per cent of farmers in Gujarat are small and marginal and they cannot bargain for the produce alone. “It is a clear reprisal of farmers against the ruling BJP government,” says Devinder Sharma, an agriculture expert. “It is the message to the nation where 650 million people are still engaged in agriculture,” he adds.

Rural discontent

Gujarat election outcome suggests farmers, tribals are unsure about the state's development model


The empathic victory in Himachal Pradesh and the further continuation of 22 years of rule in Gujarat has bolstered the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) grip on the Indian polity. BJP and its alliance now govern 19 states, one more than Congress during the height of Indira Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister.

In Himachal Pradesh, BJP won almost a two-thirds majority, but the Gujarat election garnered more attention, as BJP lost 16 seats from 2012—reducing the party’s tally to double digits for the first time since 1995 when it came to power in the state. After the Left parties in West Bengal, BJP in Gujarat is only the second non-Congress party to win elections for six consecutive terms.

Does this mean that the so-called Gujarat model of development has won again? Or did the kinds of discontent suggested by many media reports manifest themselves in elections?

Political scientist Neelanjan Sircar has made an interesting observation about the relationship between BJP’s performance and the role of agriculture in the economy. Among those constituencies outside major cities, where less than 50 per cent people are involved in agricultural activities, BJP’s strike rate is a strong 73 per cent (just 7 percentage points less than 2012), but where more than 65 per cent people are engaged in agricultural activities, the BJP’s strike rate falls sharply to 30 per cent (19 percentage point less than 2012). In 15 border districts of Gujarat comprising 45 rural-dominated constituencies, the BJP could only win 8 seats.

These districts primarily have farmer and tribal population. What do these trends suggest for national politics or for the upcoming elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which are going to polls this year? Among these states, three are ruled by BJP and one by Congress. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, BJP has ruled since 2003. Unlike Gujarat, where 44 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, these three BJP-ruled states are far less urbanised and recent farmer protests in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan should raise alarm bells in BJP.

In the 2014 parliamentary election, BJP swept in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttrakhand. Since 2014 the Gujarat model of development has dominated the political debate and an aspiration towards that model gave a solid majority to BJP and its allies at the Centre. But the Gujarat election outcome suggests that farmers, the tribal population and those from regions far removed from industrial areas are raising questions about the so-called Gujarat model of development. This suggests either they are not happy with this kind of development or they are yet to benefit from it, even though the same party has governed the state for over two decades. The government must realise and address the problem.

The author is a senior researcher at Trivedi Center for Political Data, Ashoka University, Haryana



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