Friday, December 14, 2018

Congress wrests power, BJP saves face

By Anaka Harish Ganesh

(Image Courtesy: Business Today)

Within 24 hours, three states in the Hindi heartland have changed their political colour from saffron to blue. Is this a vote against the BJP? Or is this a vote for the Congress? The BJP was clearly routed out in Chhattisgarh. But to interpret it either way in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is too extreme. Voters didn’t award the Congress or put away the BJP as expected in Rajasthan and in Madhya Pradesh, the fight was so close that no one could predict who would form the government until the very end. 

In Rajasthan, the dissatisfaction with the Vasundhara Raje government was thick in the air and for the past 25 years, the state has never re-elected the incumbent. There was also a perception of Raje as arrogant and a visible strain in the relationship between her and Amit Shah. In addition to this, the ability to connect with farmers and the youth over farm distress, unemployment and the anger over SC/ST act dilution by the BJP favoured the Congress. A few months ago, one would’ve assumed that Rajasthan would be an easy win for the grand old party, had the part kept up its initial spirit in the state. It could have easily won 115 seats and also reduced the BJP to less than 40 seats instead of scraping through to the majority. The party managed to win only 101 seats with an ally.
The game changed in the eleventh hour when the infighting between Pilot and Gehlot was clearly palpable and Raje carefully played her cards while selecting candidates in a state where caste politics takes centre stage. What might have also helped increase the final tally of the BJP is the apparent affinity of voters towards Modi at the centre. Finally, the BJP managed to win 73 seats and garner a vote share that is just 0.5 per cent short of the Congress’. The people in Rajasthan want a change in the state leadership but they are far from ruling out the BJP as a possibility for 2019. So, while the Congress in Rajasthan can take a moment to celebrate, it shouldn’t make the mistake of taking it easy during the general elections, because the ultimate battle will take a different form altogether. Vasundhara Raje, on the other hand, should look back and learn from the innumerable mistakes she has made in the past five years and help the BJP construct a strong and sensible manifesto for the general elections.
In Madhya Pradesh, BJP managed to win 109 seats, just 5 seats short of the Congress and attain a vote share that is 0.1 per cent more than the Congress. Clearly, the voters are not happy with the BJP’s performance but the party continues to be the choice for more people. Under the BJP’s rule, the state festered with problems, like farmer distress, unemployment and corruption. Adding to this is the fact that the BJP had been in power for three terms. So, the work for the Congress had been done before it started its campaign for 2018. The party needed to stop the infighting which often leads to electoral defeat. This time around there was an initial difficulty in bringing together Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia, but Kamal Nath managed to pull the party together in the end. They also managed to tap into the dissent of the farmers by promising loan waivers and a cut in power bills by 50 per cent. The party adopted a new tactic to counter the Hindutva ideology of the BJP by projecting an image of ‘soft Hindutva’. Despite all this, the Congress couldn’t reach the majority mark.
Even though the Congress emerged as the single largest party, its failure to reach the majority mark and the BJP’s final tally should keep it on its toes for the upcoming election in 2019.
The BJP’s usual approach to elections by focusing on Hindutva, Ram Mandir and attacking the Congress has failed to have the effect it usually has. The saffron party needs to focus more on issues that affect people’s daily lives. Moreover, it has to understand that four years ago, it was on the offence but now it is on the defence. The party needs to adopt this stance and know that after a term in office, it has questions to answer for, and any hopes of getting itself re-elected will only come by proving itself worthy of the vote of the masses. The assembly election results are a warning from the people that the party at the centre today needs to walk the talk and change the aforementioned rhetoric. The Congress seems to have learnt something from its previous mistakes. It has sincerely attempted to create a connection with the masses this time. But the party needs to use this chance to prove itself and be aware that its performance will be closely monitored by the people. 

(Anaka is a Research Intern at CPPR working on the Indian General Elections. Views expressed by the author are her own and do not represent that of CPPR.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A tug of war for sugar farmers

By Anaka Harish Ganesh

Recently it was reported that Australia is taking legal action against India at the WTO for “far exceeding” the level of farmer assistance permitted under WTO rules in the sugar industry. They allege that this has caused a “significant downturn” in global prices and have hurt Australian producers. These subsidies and this issue are just the tip of the iceberg. Looking deeper, a domestic political battle for a significant constituency will reveal itself. Sugarcane farmers are an important constituency in UP, Maharashtra and Karnataka, but for now I will only analyse their effect on the upcoming elections in Maharashtra. 

Of the 542 sugar mills in India, 187 are in Maharashtra and of the total sugar production in the state, around 77% is confined to the regions of Marathwada and Paschim Maharashtra (the blue and green regions in the below image). The sugarcane farmers in these 2 regions are an important constituency as they an impact on 10-15 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, out of the total 48.

The first cooperative sugar factory of India was set up in Ahmednagar by veteran industrialist Padma Shri Vithal Vikhe Patil in 1951. Over the years the government set up more and more sugar cooperatives making it an integral part of the rural economy in these two regions.

Many Congress leaders took on significant roles in these cooperatives which gave them access to a big chunk of voters. But after Sharad Pawar broke away from the Congress to form the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), he took most of the cooperatives with him. Currently, two-thirds of the cooperatives are controlled by the NCP, a fifth by the Congress, and the remaining by BJP and Shiv Sena.

Each cooperative factory has a network of sugarcane farmers and till the mid-1990’s no other cooperative was allowed to buy sugarcane from farmers belonging to other cooperatives. One side of the story claims that the farmers were compelled to vote for the leaders who were controlling their cooperatives for the fear of their sugarcane not being bought, if these leaders were not elected. The wiser side of the story claims that the leaders’ contribution to the region’s development helped them win elections. Nevertheless, over time the cooperatives influence on its network of farmers is waning perhaps because of alternative opportunities available to them.

The rise of BJP and Shiv Sena in Paschim Maharashtra and Marathwada in 2014

The first possible dent in the unanimous control NCP and Congress had on the sugarcane farmers in Paschim Maharashtra was the emergence of Raju Shetti of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS). He is known to have a remarkable connection with the sugarcane farmers owing to his clear and fervent representation of their concerns. In 2009 he managed to win a Lok Sabha seat from Hatkanangale.

During the 2014 elections, understanding the need for a voice that connects with the sugarcane farmers, the BJP and Shiv Sena formed an alliance with SSS. Following which, the NDA managed to up its tally from 2 to 6, out of a possible 10 seats in the region. Of course, a lot of other factors like the Modi wave, and an overall perception of ‘corruption’ in the UPA government helped the alliance. Apart from the NDA’s victory in the region, it is also important to note that even though the Congress lost all its seats here, the NCP won 4, in a region that is known to be its stronghold.

In 2017 however, Raju Shetti severed ties with the NDA, and the SSS joined the UPA over dissatisfaction with the Narendra Modi government on its handling of farmer issues. Probably anticipating the exit of Shetti, in 2016 the BJP lead government in the state had already placed Sadabhau Khot of the Swabhimani Paksha (SWP), another party representing the sugarcane farmers, in a strategic position. They made him the Minister of State for Agriculture and Horticulture and Marketing.

The second region, Marathwada, is traditionally a Congress stronghold. In the general election of 2014 there was no real change in the seat share between the parties. The only change being that the NCP lost its solitary seat and the BJP gained an additional. But in the state assembly elections of 2014 there was a significant shift towards the BJP and Shiv Sena and a significant shift away from the Congress and NCP. The farmers in the region had suffered a lot due to drought while the UPA government was in power. So, an irrigation scam worth Rs 70,000 crore to 1 lakh crore severely affected the Congress and NCP.

BJP’s attempts to dismantle the connection between farmers and the NCP and Congress

After coming to power in 2014, the Fadnavis government has taken noteworthy changes in Cooperatives and APMC’S. Firstly, the Maharashtra Cooperatives Societies Act was amended to facilitate the appointment of independent experts to the boards of all cooperatives, including sugar cooperatives. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis also barred directors on boards of cooperative banks from contesting elections for two terms if their bank has seen financial irregularities and administrative mismanagement. Next was a set of changes to the APMC Act to subvert the monopoly that traders have over farmers in the state. Although these changes are officially aimed at reducing corruption and improving the lives of farmers, the political undertones aimed at weakening the Congress and NCP’s control over the farmers cannot be disregarded.

While the BJP can benefit from these changes in the long term, the NCP and Congress have established their power in the cooperatives over decades. Hence, their control cannot be toppled overnight and the BJP might not immediately benefit from the above-mentioned changes.

The worrying scenario of the sugar industry

Currently, the mismatch between demand and supply of sugarcane is a cause for concern for the BJP government. In Maharashtra the area under sugarcane cultivation has increased by 25 per cent this season. Last season, glut in sugarcane production domestically and internationally caused the prices to slide, this led to mounting arrears to sugarcane farmers. But the BJP announced a Rs. 7000 crore package for the sugar sector, which is said to have helped the farmers.

In June this year, only 71 out of 187 mills had cleared all their arears from last season, which lead to the government sending notices to 96 mills. By September however dues had fallen from Rs. 1768 crores to Rs. 437 crores.

Despite last year’s set back, farmers continue to grow sugarcane because of its assured returns to growers. It is the only crop where mills are compelled to purchase the crops at state mandated fair and remunerative price.

The expected production in India of sugar this season is between 30 to 35 million tonnes while domestic consumption is only 25 million tonnes. Exports are not a viable option as international prices are lower than domestic prices. Hence, this year’s arrears can be higher than that of last years. How will the government tackle this? With elections inching closer they will probably just resort to a large package like last year or issue loan waivers or both.

In Conclusion

The Congress and especially the NCP’s loosening control over sugar cooperatives and APMC’s can be worrying for them. But the changes having been implemented only recently may not severely affect their hold. The most significant critic of the Congress and NCP on behalf of the sugarcane farmers, Raju Shetti having jumped over to their side is a definite plus.

What we need to watch out for is the BJP’s marketing. If they manage to highlight the changes they made in the sugar cooperatives, APMCs and banks as an effort to improve farmers’ lives and reduce corruption, they can give the Congress and NCP a run for their money.

Overall, almost 5 months before the elections the BJP and the Congress-NCP alliance can put up a formidable fight for the much-coveted constituency in Maharashtra.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Awaiting MP assembly poll results: Will right alliances help INC out of exile?

By Piyush Prakash Yadav

Image courtesy - Election Tamasha
The Madhya Pradesh Assembly Poll results is set to define the mood of the voters in the upcoming 2019 General Elections. Madhya Pradesh is mainly a bipolar contest between INC and BJP, but in recent times a few regional parties have come up with major vote banks in the state. MP has 90.89% Hindu population and majority of the voters voted for BJP because of its Hindu identity. The state which has more than half of the population engaged in agriculture is still heckled by agrarian issues, crime against women, unemployment, corruption etc. These issues have a major implication on people’s minds and may cause them to vote for a change of government. Making this assembly election very important for both BJP and Congress.

BJP has been ruling the state since 2003, winning the last three elections. The Congress on the other hand has been in exile for 15 years and desperately wants to make a comeback. Wining this election will help Congress increase their tally of Lok Sabha seats from single digit to double digit. Whereas it is important for BJP to retain 26 out of the 270 lok sabha seats from this state. So, keeping in view the general elections of 2019 they cannot afford to lose these elections.

The 2013 assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh saw a vote share of 44.88% for the BJP and 36.38% for the INC. This gap in the vote share can be easily contributed by BSP in the current polls. BSP performed well in the previous election in the state, securing a vote share of 6.29%. BSP has a stronghold in the Gird, Bundelkhand and Baghelkhand regions. It holds 4 seats and was a runner up in a dozen others. A BSP-INC alliance can help both the parties throw out the BJP. But BSP made it tough for INC by opting out of an alliance.

In the current state elections, many new parties entered the battleground representing some classes and communities. One of which is Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS) which has a strong presence in the Malwa region. Malwa region is the biggest and most important region of the state, having a strong presence of Scheduled Tribe voters. Majority in many constituencies can be lured by JAYS. Malwa region is also affected by many issues like agrarian issues and other events like Mandsaur incident. In order to claim victory in Madhya Pradesh, all the parties are focusing on this region. An INC-JAYS alliance would have helped INC to gain more seats in the region.

One of the major reasons for INC to lose votes is because they believe that they lack Hindu credentials which the party is focusing on now by applying soft Hindutva factor in their agenda. INC has ruled out of alliances with BSP and other parties because of seat sharing in the big leader areas. Their fear of losing presence in the region can become the ruling reason behind the loss of INC. These alliances could have paved the way for INC to achieve victory as they have the most number of big leaders in each area in the state. According to the Dainik Bhasker survey, approx. 55% of the population thinks that factionalism is the biggest challenge for Congress in order to win the election. INC’s soft Hindutva game may not after all become successful because of BJP’s hard Hindutva identity in the state.
(Views expressed by the author are personal and do not represent that of CPPR India)