Narendra Yadav, 30, is a former ‘pradhan’ (chief) of Chowki village in the Sagar district, 172 km off Bhopal. Chowki is part of the Surkhi Assembly constituency, one of the eight seats making up the Sagar Lok Sabha constituency. Of these, seven, including Surkhi, were won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2013 election, and one, Deori, went to the Congress. Like most voters in Surkhi, Yadav, a farmer, was a BJP-adherent. But the sight of vast quantities of paddy spread over mats outside his home today disheartens him.
“I don’t know if this paddy harvested after hard work by me and my family will get the price I expect in the marketplace. I have to travel afar to Raisen or Vidisha at my expense to seek a buyer,” says Yadav, ruefully. In “good” times, his paddy of “high quality” basmati provenance might have fetched Rs 3,000 to 3,500 a quintal. This year, Yadav believes it could go for only Rs 2,000, “if I am fortunate”. “Demonetisation drained our village economy of hard cash. Nobody seems to have the money to buy,” he says.
When he votes on November 28, Yadav says, he will swim with the current and likely go for the Congress, like the rest of Surkhi. “I was initially reluctant to switch sides. But I had to go with the general mood. Then I put up the Congress flag on my roof top. The village followed. The BJP workers asked questions, but I said nothing will change our minds, not even (Narendra) Modi’s campaign,” he emphasised.
If anything, these elections have reset an identity which Yadav, like numerous other farmers, lived with in the past — as backward caste members. “This time, we are voting as farmers — forward, backward, scheduled caste, scheduled tribe. Ideally, politics shouldn’t recognise caste. May be the time has come for that,” says Yadav. If indeed the trend holds good, it is the consequence of several harsh realities that have hurt and enfeebled Madhya Pradesh’s rural economy: delayed cheque payments that took even longer to get encashed, back to depending on the local ‘sahukar’ (moneylender), and worse, petty corruption allegedly done by government employees who asked for bribes before signing the documents farmers required to make claims that should effortlessly come into their bank accounts.
So enamoured was Yadav of the Congress that he thought its election manifesto was the “best gift” that Rahul Gandhi unwrapped for MP’s voters. “The BJP’s obsession with cow protection saddled us with unproductive animals. We can’t sell them because the ‘gau rakshak’ (cattle vigilante) will attack us. So the animals are left to perish on the roads. I am happy that the Congress has promised to raise cow shelters, it shows it is more sensitive than the BJP,” he says.
At Gyaraspur village in Vidisha, about 57 km from Bhopal, new converts from the BJP to the Congress converged at the local party office to volunteer their services and spruce up an organisation worn out from 15 years of disuse. They included past and current ‘sarpanch’ from traditionally adversarial castes, such as Rajput, Kushwaha, Yadav, Koeri and Meena. Gyaraspur falls in the Basoda Assembly seat, won by the Congress’ Nishank Kumar Jain the previous time. His opponent, Harisingh Raghuvanshi of the BJP, was a Rajput. While the upper-caste Rajputs rooted for Raghuvanshi, Jain netted the votes of the backward castes. The same candidates face each other this time, the difference being that Jain is likely to take away a chunk of the Rajput vote as well.
Ravindra Raghuvanshi, a Rajput sarpanch, says: “The Mandsaur firing (at Piplya Mandi in 2017 where the police killed six farmers agitating for loan waiver and better crop prices) was an eye-opener for every farmer. Those who were shot down were ‘kisan’, they had no other identity. For a long time, the Rajput would not vote on the same side as a backward caste person. That’s a thing of the past.”
At the Rahatgarh agricultural mandi (market) in Sagar district, among the clutch of farmers gathered to share their woes, only one, Sudhir Yadav, says he supports the BJP candidate, his namesake and the son of the Sagar MP Laxmi Narayan Yadav. “To me, caste matters,” he stresses. In no time, he is shouted out by the others who vie with one another to say, “the only goal before us is to remove the BJP government”.
One of them was Ramdas, from the backward caste of Lodh-Rajputs to which Uma Bharati, the BJP’s former chief minister, belongs. “Yes, I was a BJP ‘bhakt’ (faithful). I have turned against it because all I want is for the next government to clear my legitimate dues. I do not want the benefits from the fancy schemes the present CM has announced,” says Ramdas.
In the BJP office, Ashok Jain, an election manager, admits that the Lodh-Rajputs, who have formed the “spine” of the party’s backward caste base, are now “moving away”. “We asked Uma Bharati to campaign. What else can we do? Satisfy each and every farmer,” he asks.
Underlying the largely undelivered and non-implementable sops contained in Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s myriad agrarian ventures was a largely unspoken recognition — that, more than other factors, demonetisation had sapped the village economy of its life-blood. Anand Rajput, a young man of Sainkheda village near Narsinghpur, 224 km from Bhopal, says he, unable to sustain agriculture on the land his family owned, has become a sharecropper for a daily wage of Rs 200, after ‘note bandi’. “Money is like blood. It has to remain in circulation to keep alive an economy, more so a village economy. Demonetisation killed us, we never recouped from it,” he says.