The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the main organiser of the protests by Nashik farmers — most of them adivasis living on the edge of forests. It is true that apart from highlighting the demands of these farmers, the CPI(M) is also looking to gain political momentum against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state and at the Centre in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The organisers claimed that there were 40,000 farmers who had marched to Mumbai, the state capital. The police estimated that the figure was between 15,000 and 20,000. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis seemed to have decided to talk to the representatives of the farmers — 15 of them — on Monday morning when he realised that the presence of the aggrieved farmers in such large numbers in India’s financial capital was hugely significant. He did not want to be caught on the wrong foot. And the talks lasted for around four hours, with the chief minister aided by other ministers. The outcome was positive, if not substantial, at least for the moment. He sought six months’ time to transfer the forest lands to farmers under the Forest Rights Act 2006. And he has agreed to waive the farm loans, including term loans, from 2001 instead of 2009 as decided in June. And he did a good thing by arranging special trains for the farmers to go home.
It may appear that the farmers had won because some of their demands have been met, that the CPI(M) had won because it has successfully mobilised the farmers and posed a challenge to the party in power, and that the Fadnavis government has won too as it has successfully parried the political protest. Chief minister Fadnavis will also believe that he has earned some brownie points as well. In market jargon, it has turned out to be a win-win outcome for all concerned. In the long term, however, these perceived victories might turn out to be illusory. The state government may not be able to sort out the transfer of lands as smoothly as it would like to, the farmers on the ground are sure to come up against the same hurdles, or new ones could crop up. The CPI(M) may not have gained as much political traction as it might believe. It may have to do something again to keep up the momentum. As a matter of fact, CPI(M) politburo member Hanhan Mollah had indicated as much, saying that after the success with the farmers of Nashik, the party would organise a similar farmers’ convergence in New Delhi from all over the country. The country needs this kind of political mobilisation time and again because it is necessary for the different ruling parties to be under constant pressure.
It may not be entirely right to draw the general conclusion that the unhappiness and discontent of the Nashik farmers is a symptom of the crisis in agriculture in the country and that it clearly points to the failure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government at the Centre and of BJP governments in different states. It is a valid generalisation, and as generalisations go it is of little value. What is clear is that Mr Modi and the BJP will be facing a tough contest in 2019, and they cannot take victory for granted. It is possible that this will serve as a wakeup call for the BJP — that it gets a clear indication of the challenge looming on the horizon. There are of course the more substantial questions of the issues at stake, stemming out of the Nashik farmers’ protest. These are long-term issues, with no easy answers. No government can solve the problem of distress arising out of the general condition of a failed or weak monsoon, the crash in prices of the agricultural produce. These are structural challenges and they have to be addressed at different levels, starting from the ground.
It shows that grand promises are really empty promises, and that is the real danger that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, chief minister Fadnavis and many of his fellow CMs face. Their self-belief that they wield a magic wand is but a delusion. The demand of the Opposition parties that these problems should be addressed and solved forthwith will remain a grand political tactic. What anyone refuses to ask is whether the farmers are being brought together at the local level to sit down and talk about their problems and the solutions they need to evolve. It is a good thing to mobilise angry farmers for political purposes, but it is not going to deliver solutions. And it is quite clear that political parties, whatever their ideologies, have not much to offer on this score. One of the hypocritical things of the political parties, in the government and in Opposition, about the need to implement the M.S. Swaminathan committee report smacks of mindless opportunism. The report has not been discussed critically in the public domain, and it is unrealistic to assume that the committee has all the answers to farmers’ problems and all that is needed to solve them is to implement it. This speaks of unforgiveable ignorance.
The BJP’s grand strategy of moving people away from agriculture has been one of the conspicuous failures of this government because the idea did not reckon with Indian reality. China might have succeeded in shifting people dependent on agriculture to demarcated urban areas, but that step had spawned its own set of problems. Mr Modi and his colleagues in the party will have to abandon rhetoric for a while, and think of realistic solutions with the help of experts. What we need is a comprehensive report on Indian agriculture. Some of the elements are already available in government reports done from time to time. There is a need to go back to them, and look at the issues with sober eyes.