The Opposition, led by the Congress, termed the Union Cabinet’s decision on Wednesday to increase minimum support price (MSP) of 14 crops a political gimmick, and read it as a portent that the Narendra Modi government could be exploring to hold Lok Sabha polls simultaneously with assembly polls to several states.
Lok Sabha elections are scheduled for April-May 2019. Assembly elections to key north Indian states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, along with northeastern state of Mizoram, are slated for November-December. But the Modi government is keen to hold assembly elections to these states, and some more, simultaneously with the Lok Sabha (LS) polls.
The MSP increase in paddy will have an electoral bearing in paddy growing areas, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Haryana, Punjab, and Chhattisgarh. The MSP increase in oilseeds and pulses will affect farmers in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, and that in millets in Rajasthan.
The Modi government, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), went into overdrive to advertise the decision. Four senior ministers – Rajnath Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Radha Mohan Singh, and Harsimrat Kaur Badal – addressed the press conference to announce the decision on Wednesday afternoon.
Nearly a dozen senior Union ministers have been asked to travel to different corners of the country to spread the word. BJP chief Amit Shah was in Mirzapur, which is located in electorally important Uttar Pradesh, where he extolled the decision as “historic”.
Several BJP chief ministers also hailed the announcement, and have been asked to deploy publicity departments of their respective governments to showcase the farmer friendly policies of the Modi government. Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said the Modi government was under pressure because of farmer discontent. “It is an electoral lollipop,” Surjewala said, pointing out that a procurement policy was not in place and large parts of northern India were unlikely to be covered.
The All India Kisan Sabha, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), termed the MSP increase a betrayal of the PM’s promise of MSP increase based on of A2+C2 formula. Its leader Ashok Dhawale said the announcement was notional as public procurement was taking place only in a few crops like paddy and wheat, and that too is below 20 per cent of the total production.
Dhawale said in most other crops there is no assured procurement in most states, and benefits were unlikely to reach the cultivating peasantry. “The government is hoodwinking farmers by making an aggressive campaign on the issue on the eve of the impending elections,” Dhawale said.
A government source said there was indeed an effort to hold as many assembly elections as possible along with the LS polls. The source said the Centre was exploring whether it could either extend the terms of the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh legislative assemblies, or put these states under a short spell of central rule. This would enable elections to these three states to be postponed and held along with the LS elections.
The Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Sikkim assembly elections are scheduled alongside the LS polls. Elections to some other assemblies, whose terms end by late 2019, could also be brought forward. These include Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra. Therefore, as many as 12-states could go to polls along with the LS polls.
A senior government official said the announcement on MSP increase, along with the sugarcane package that was earlier announced, shows the government’s concern for farmers.
“The government is set loosen its purse strings for rural India, and the poor. This would include plan to distribute pulses through the pubic distribution system, hiring more agencies to broad-base procurement operations under MSP,” the official said.
The Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), an ally of the BJP, said the MSP increase fell short of expectations. Trinamool Congress said the decision was “all hype”.
The Congress, Left parties, and even JD(U) pointed out that the MSP increase fell short of not only the Swaminathan Commission recommendations, but also the promise the PM made to farmers during an interaction on the NaMo app last month of increasing farm incomes by 50 per cent of the production cost.
To counter the government narrative and highlight the plight of farmers, the Kisan Sabha is holding protests on August 9 and September 5. Surjewala said the Congress party will support the agitation, and also launch its own across north India.