General Elections 2019: Whose voice and which issues matter

Agrarian distress, the women electorate and new voters will be crucial to the Lok Sabha polls

By Joyjeet Das
Published: Tuesday 12 March 2019

The dates for the world’s largest democratic event are set. About 90 crore (900 million) voters will participate in India’s General Elections 2019, the schedule for which was announced by Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora on March 10, 2019. To put things into perspective, the electorate of the second-most populous country is larger than the combined population of the next three on the chart — the United States, Indonesia and Brazil.

A lot will be at stake in these elections, which in all probability will be a bitter fight between two broad camps: the ruling National Democratic Alliance — mostly Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — and a plethora of Opposition parties, the largest of whom is Indian National Congress.

Ever since the February 14 terror strike in Pulwama, the chatter on media — social media in particular — has tended to predict a second innings for Modi at the helm. To suggest, however, that such a large population would vote homogeneously on one issue alone may be reductive. Results of the elections to key state legislatures as recent as last December demonstrated how the ongoing agrarian distress can influence politics.

Political parties will do well to keep in mind several such issues while canvassing for votes.

Return of the rural

Urbanisation has been a theme pampered by governments ever since India won its independence. But from the time the country was put on the path of economic ‘liberalisation’ in 1991, it has almost been a one-way street.

The game has increasingly been stacked against that India, which famously resides in its villages. Thousands of our farmers have committed suicides since the mid-’90s even as agriculture has become more expensive, less rewarding and increasingly risky. Meanwhile trainloads of villagers have thronged the increasingly congested cities in search of work. Many of them have left for good and, for the first time since Independence, urban India’s absolute increase in population outpaced rural India. 

Yet, going by even the 2011 Census numbers, 68.84 per cent Indians live in the villages. And they have a habit of surprising urban pundits (Remember India Shining 2004?). When policies have been tailored for them, they have also voted incumbents back to power (a la 2009).

This lot is now in distress: Successive droughts and crop damages have nearly stalled agricultural growth, pulling down farm income and ballooning debt. The crisis was imminent within a year of Modi’s prime-ministership.

As farmers ran into a never-before crisis, rural wages took a beating and remain suppressed till date. As a result, a large part of the labour force has exited the rural market, forcing farmers to find innovative solutions. But then, they can take help only that much. 

The problem manifested in even more ways. Livestock has traditionally bailed Indian farmers out of a sticky wicket. But, by January 2016, as half of the country reeled under drought, even fodder for cattle became scarce

Soon, the situation reached an extent that a normal monsoon couldn’t be assumed as the only incentive for farmers to sustain productivity. Even crop insurance, most notably the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, flopped.

Backward march

The crisis affected even those communities that were generally considered prosperous, leading to unrest, especially among the youth, in several parts of the country. The Jats in Haryana, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, Gujjars in Rajasthan, Patels in Modi’s home state Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh have taken to the streets in protest. Landed communities that took pride in their identity, even discarded the idea of reservation during the agitation to implement the Mandal Commisson’s recommendations, were suddenly seeking quotas in education and government jobs.

Agitations were not always community-specific, however. In Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, violent protests were led by big farmers. When water scarcity and failed crops drove Tamil Nadu farmers to demonstrate at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, they were not under the banner of any one caste or community.

The drought situation, meanwhile, has worsened further and affected all classes. Administrative response, though, has remained myopic. What has changed is the intensity and frequency of farmers’ rallies and protests. 

The prolonged crisis has taken a toll on rural citizens, reflected in what the electoral voting machines have thrown up. The ruling BJP was voted out in power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh after nearly one-and-a-half decades. It also lost in Rajasthan. In all these states, the Congress highlighted the farm crisis and promised loan waivers as it did in Karnataka in 2018. Earlier, the BJP managed to just-about save its skin in bastion Gujarat where too the rural crisis emerged as a top issue.

Minimum basic

On the other hand, Telangana’s first chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao returned to power comfortably. His re-election has been credited to policies designed for farmers such as the Rayathu Bandhu Scheme, among other things. Soon other state governments run by regional parties (eg, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and Biju Janata Dal in Odisha). In Sikkim, Chief Minister PK Chamling has promised a universal basic income (UBI) on re-election. 

Congress President Rahul Gandhi floated the idea of a minimum basic income. Eventually, the Modi government announced the PM-KISAN project and has already started putting cash in farmers’ bank accounts. But are such schemes enough to pull farmers out of economic morass?

The government has also allocated more money for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Yet, reports suggest that the funds would not be enough and job seekers have demanded for more.

Divine bovine

What has added to the woes of the rural population are stringent anti-cow slaughter and trafficking regimes at the Centre and various Hindi-belt states. So much so that farmers are now scared to keep, buy and sell cattle, which has traditionally acted as a form of insurance.

The distress has also spiralled out of rural areas due to the crackdown on slaughterhouses. If the recent Vote on Account — the Modi government’s last Budget — was any account of its growing number of worries, make no mistake, the bovine figured there as well in the form of the Kamdhenu scheme and the Gokul mission

Half the people

Perhaps the worst effect of the agrarian crisis has been on women. Most of them, mostly without land rights, suffer the problems the men suffer and some. Droughts hit women — who have the burden to arrange for the family’s need for water — the hardest. 

Women farmers, farm widows, agricultural labourers have made their presence felt at recent protest marches and demonstrations. Not only that; women, from both cities and villages, have now started to surpass men in participating in the electoral process. In the first phase of Chhattisgarh Assembly elections, there were more women voters than men. The phase included the Maoist stronghold of Bastar where the ultras had called for a boycott.

The political parties seem to have taken a note of this vigour. The Modi government has tried to woo the women voter through programmes such as the Ujjwala scheme, which helped millions switch from the hearth to the gas oven. But bottlenecks remained, notably paying for refills.

Women also have had to bear the brunt of the government’s zeal. The much publicised Swachh Bharat programme included a toilet-building spree. But the mission to make villages open-defecation-free (ODF) often made desperate officials turn towards coercion.

Though seats are reserved for women at Panchayati Raj institutions, a quota at all levels of legislative bodies have still remained unattained as the Lok Sabha could never clear the Women’s Reservation Bill. The current government never tried to revive it. But this time round, at least one party — the Biju Janata Dal — has announced that a third of its candidates will be women

The scheduled ones

Among those who powered Modi’s big sweep in 2014 were the scheduled castes and tribes. They comprised 16.6 per cent and 8.6 per cent of the Indian politics, according to the 2011 Census — together making up about a quarter of the electorate. That doesn’t, however, mean that the standard of living of those at the bottom of the Indian pyramid has improved drastically. Though not a homogeneous block, the political parties can’t ignore them.

The scheduled castes have arguably been the most-affected in the agrarian crisis. A large section of them are either landless or marginal and small farmers. Cow vigilantism has also affected this section, many of whom are associated with the leather industry.

The scheduled tribes will the hardest-hit if states start evicting forest dwellers whose applications under the Forest Rights Act have not been cleared. The Centre seemed to have woken up late in the day to the issue, seeking a stay on Supreme Court’s February order to states. The case in point is one which challenges the validity of the Act, which has helped tribal communities create a new economy

Millenium voters

There will be 1.5 crore young adults eligible to vote in a parliamentary election for the first time. Add to them who debuted in the 2014 elections and you have a significant number who can sway outcomes. More than 30 per cent of India’s youth are neither employed not going to school. Jobs, in fact, have been hard to come. If jobless growth haunted the previous government, the current regime has been accused of scrapping jobs data altogether. A recent media report claimed unemployment was at its peak ever since records started being kept. 

Naturally, the youth is restless, perhaps in anguish. Outbursts have often taken extreme forms and thrown up new challenges to the democracy. This is also a generation fed to the teeth with social media, which can be a “slippery slope”, according to United Nations’ former secretary-general Kofi Annan.

In the end, the outcome of the elections will be a mix of how all such electorates react. Whether it will take into account all of their aspirations and necessities, is the question.

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