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Farmers to play key role in India’s critical provincial polls

A visit to sugarcane belt of Uttar Pradesh reveals, while farm-related issues are uppermost in minds of voters, others do consider national security priority issue

Ahmad Adil   | 08.02.2022
Farmers to play key role in India’s critical provincial polls

MUZAFFARNAGAR, BAGHPAT, India

Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in India yielded to the demands of farmers in November last year by repealing controversial farm laws, the mood on the ground reveals that their yearlong agitation has telltale effects on the poll prospects of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the vital battleground for the ruling party is going to polls in seven phases starting from Feb. 10.

A visit to the villages of Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat districts, 160 kilometers (99 miles) east from capital New Delhi shows that a sense of anger persists among a section of farmers.

The area known for sugarcane production plays an important role in the BJP’s victory. Out of 58 seats in the region out of a total of 403 seats in the assembly, the BJP had swept the area winning 53 seats in 2017.

As many as four million people are engaged in sugarcane farming in the region.

"There is no playground in our village. Unemployment is the biggest problem. When we asked our legislator about this issue, he merely said he will convey the problem to the senior leaders," Som Singh, a resident of Kudana village in Shamli district told Anadolu Agency.

Last month, when BJP legislator Tejendra Nirwal reached his village for seeking votes, the angry crowds forced him to retreat.

"The promises made by the ruling party in 2017 were not fulfilled completely. The old sugarcane dues are yet to be cleared and our debts have increased,” said Singh while pointing towards his fields.

The sugarcane belt is dominated by the Hindu Jat community and Muslim farmers. While Muslims comprise 26.21%, the Jat community comprises 18% of the population in the western UP region. Together with the Sikh farmers of nearby Punjab, they formed the backbone of yearlong protests against farms laws.

Farm issues dominate

At the Jasala village in Shamli, Prasanna Chaudhary who is a joint candidate of local Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and main opposition of the state Samajwadi Party (SP) touches the raw nerve by raking up the farm issues to the discomfiture of BJP.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Virpal Singh, a close aide of Chaudhary, said people are not happy with the government policies.

"Farmers have realized the government has not done much for them. We are getting a good response wherever we go," he said.

Singh noted that when the government faced pressure last year, they had to repeal the laws, but till then 700 people had died.

“Today, farmers say they have no one to listen to their problems," he said.

The region had witnessed one of the bloodiest communal riots in 2013. Riding on the wave of animosity between the two communities, BJP swept the 2014 parliamentary seats and then assembly seats in 2017 in the region.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front), a coalition of farmer unions this month also issued an appeal to voters to punish the ruling BJP in the upcoming polls for “betraying” farmers.

Outside a sugar mill in the Bagphat district, farmers have lined up with tractors laden with sugarcane to sell their produce. Sohan Singh, waiting for his turn told Anadolu Agency that he is still undecided about whom to vote in these elections. Last two elections, he had voted for Modi’s BJP.

"Nothing has changed for us. See the inflation. The petrol rate is near 100 rupees ($1.34) and electricity bills are huge. Today I am giving my crop to the mill, but don't know when they will pay me,” he said.

"The government had earlier promised payment within 14 days. But that promise was never fulfilled,” he said.

Singh also said the problem of stray cattle destroying farm produce is also a big issue in the region. Following restrictions imposed on the slaughtering of animals and ban on consumption and possession of beef, there are no takers for the animals and people leave them stray after they complete their productivity phase.

"The stray cattle come and destroy the crops at the night. The government promised to come up with cow shelter, but nothing has been done," he said.

On the roadside pavements, young people said they were facing severe issues related to employment.

Sagar Chouhan from Muzaffarnagar, who has completed his graduation, said he is now helping his family in the sugarcane fields. Sagar had applied for a job in the army advertised three years ago but the recruitment process is yet to begin.

"I will vote for the party, which will bring more jobs for the youth," he said.

National security is issue

To counter the issues raised by the opposition, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, who visited the region recently invoked issues related to nationalism and reminded them of their fight against past Muslim empires. In another interaction, he said that "ours is a nationalist party and has always striven to secure nation”.

There are many takers of his argument.

"For me, the important issue is that under this government, India has become a powerful country,” said Pramod Kumar, a farmer at Karina town.

In the nearby Meerut district, Kailash Bharti, a senior local BJP leader said the government has not discriminated against anyone based on religion.

“Muslims and Hindus have benefited from each scheme, equally," he said.

While agreeing that farmers in the region are angry at the government, he expressed confidence that the situation will change and they will understand the situation as the voting day comes closer.

Pointing towards the paved highway, he said people are wise to make a difference between pre-2017 and post -2017 situations. He added that the government arranged food and other facilities for the poor in the wake of the massive COVID-19 wave. He hoped that it will work in favor of his party to retain the majority in the assembly to form the next government once again.

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