A meeting in Budha village of Mandsaur district in Madhya Pradesh could next month turn out to be the first test for Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s promise that his party would be the lynchpin of Opposition unity.
It would also test the popularity of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state in an election year.
Prominent Opposition leaders, including the Congress president and leading activists, are likely to assemble in Budha village, 20 kms from Mandsaur town on June 6, to mark the first anniversary of the death of six farmers in police firing last year.
On June 6, 2017, six farmers had been killed in police firing in Mandsaur. The farmers were protesting against the abysmal prices for their onion and garlic crops. The incident had triggered sustained farm protests in several parts of the country.
As the Mandsaur firing incident completes a year, garlic prices have hit rock bottom in Madhya Pradesh, while onion rates have again plummeted in the Malwa-Nimar region, the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation.
The meeting is significant since Madhya Pradesh has Assembly elections due in November-December, along with Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. Theis will also be the last round of Assembly elections before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress party’s Madhya Pradesh in-charge Dipak Babaria confirmed that Gandhi was likely to be in Mandsaur on June 6.
Swaraj Abhiyan’s Yogendra Yadav said leaders of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, or AIKSCC, an umbrella body 190 farmer organisations, would also be in Budha village on June 6 to pay their respects to the slain farmers.
However, the committee has decided it will stay away from any event organised under the Congress party’s flag. The leaders are not averse to sharing the stage with either the Congress chief or leaders of other political parties. But they have suggested that the meeting to pay respects to the slain farmers be organised by locals, and not under the banner of any political party.
Activist Medha Patkar will lead a march from Badwani to Bhopal, where farmers will observe a symbolic fast on June 5 to protest the Narendra Modi government’s “failure to address farm distress”, said former legislator and AIKSSC leader Sunilam.
All India Kisan Sabha, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), will also hold countrywide protests on June 6. In the last one year, the Kisan Sabha has led farmer movements in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, including the ‘long march’ from Nashik to Mumbai a couple of months back.
Kisan Sabha’s Vijoo Krishnan said protests to highlight agrarian distress would begin from May 23. The Kisan Sabha has launched a campaign to collect 100 million signatures. The campaign will culminate on August 9 with workers courting arrest. On September 5, the Kisan Sabha has given a call for a “peasants and workers” rally in Delhi.
At the June 6 meeting, leaders and activists will demand that the Modi government implement its promises made in BJP’s 2014 manifesto – implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission and ensure payment of minimum support price to farmers.
The Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (RKMS), a breakaway group of the Sangh Parivar, has also given a call to villages in the region to not sell their produce if they do not get suitable price. The outfit, led by Shiv Kumar ‘Kakkaji’, had led the farmer protests in Mandsaur last year. Reminiscent of last year’s agitation, the RKMS and other farmer organisations, have again called for a state-wide ban on the movement of vegetables, milk and other essential items from villages to the cities from June 1.
The Sangh Parivar and BJP are concerned the protests could spark anti-incumbency against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in an election year. The BJP's Kisan Morcha has asked its members to reach out to farmers to explain the schemes and steps taken by the Modi government, including the crop insurance scheme.
In the aftermath of Mandsaur incident last year, Chouhan-led BJP government in Madhya Pradesh had embarked on a massive exercise to restore its credibility among farmers, who had been hit hard by falling prices. Ironically, Madhya Pradesh won its fifth consecutive 'Krishi Karman' award from the Central government in 2017 for achieving record production of grains, but along the same time, that is between 2013 and 2016, the number of farmers suicides also rose by 21 per cent in the state, which was among the fastest in the country.
Chief Minister Chouhan went on a three-day fast immediately after the firing, where he appealed for peace to be restored. His cabinet sat through the night to purchase onions and garlics cultivated by farmers at set prices, which was one of the key demand of the protesters.
In the latter half of the year, around kharif season, the state implemented one of the most ambitious programmes to de-risk price fluctuation in farm commodities by starting the Bhawantar Bhugtan Yojana (price deficit financing scheme).
To avail the benefit of the scheme, farmers had to register for the scheme and had to mandatorily sell their produce within a pre-fixed window. Initially, nine kharif crops were included into the scheme with a mandate to expand it later. When the scheme opened, there were allegations of traders hijacking the scheme to create an artificial slump in prices.
The state government said prices slumped because of sharp increase in supplies and also the damage to standing crop like tur due to unseasonal rains. The problems notwithstanding, including lack of central funding, Madhya Pradesh continued financing farmers for crops like garlic, which was included in the scheme. It also re-started a system of incentivizing wheat farmers something which it had stopped in 2014 after the Narendra Modi government took charge and also announced a slew of measures to provide a price cushion to farmers.
However, the June 6 meeting could trigger another round of farmer protests.