Mandsaur becomes political battlefield as Rahul blows election bugle

(Photo: @RahulGandhi Twitter)
A year after five farmers were killed in police firing in Pipliyamandi in the district, Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday launched his party’s campaign for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, slated for November, by promising that his party would write off farm loans within 10 days of forming a government in Bhopal.

The Congress rally was well attended. The kin of some of the farmers also turned up. But a year after the incident, Mandsaur is perceptibly calm.

In urban areas, people are a bit weary of the political battlefield that their district has turned into. They say the Congress is politicising farm distress to use Mandsaur as the gateway to form the government in Bhopal. The Congress has been out of power in Madhya Pradesh since 2003.

But farm distress is real, and the Congress is hopeful that it can make Pipliyamandi into the nerve centre of farmers’ grievances against not just the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led state government, but also the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.

The Chouhan-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has accepted the Congress challenge, and has reached out to the farmers of Mandsaur, which falls in the prosperous Malwa-Nimar region, by announcing schemes like Bhavantar, and also provided compensation of Rs 10 million each and jobs for the families of the slain farmers.

Mandsaur is also a centre for cultivation of opium, and the state administration believes last year’s farm protests were not spontaneous but fuelled by people involved in the illegal opium trade. As one enters Pipliyamandi, the biggest change from last year is a new building to house the police control room of the state government’s narcotics department. The state government looks determined to crack down on the illegal trade.

However, plummeting prices of crops in the last few years, because of sundry reasons, including overproduction, is a concern for farmers. Garlic, a key post-harvest inter-crop, is selling at Rs 1 a kg. The sharp drop in prices of agricultural commodities has also hit ancillary industries.

Amarnath from Aalot tehsil in Ratlam district of Madhya Pradesh, who travelled all the way from his village to attend Gandhi's rally, says farming has become difficult. Water scarcity has forced him to take to cultivating soybean, but the drop in prices has pushed him into debt.

Amarnath said he had spent his own money to attend the rally, and had brought 10 of his family members along, but insisted he did not owe allegiance to the Congress.

The Congress faces an uphill task in converting this anger into votes. While farmers are upset, there is still no noticeable antipathy towards the Chouhan government. Many others at the rally ground also said they attended to show their anger, but were hopeful that Gandhi’s promise of a farm loan waiver would put the chief minister under pressure to announce one before the Assembly elections.

Moreover, the word on the street is infighting within the Congress will once again lead to the party’s comeuppance.

It is no secret that all is not well between former chief minister Digvijaya Singh, state unit chief Kamal Nath and Lok Sabha member Jyotiraditya Scindia.

In his speech, Gandhi pointedly avoided mentioning Singh, who was also present on the dais, as he repeatedly referred to Nath and Scindia. Sources said Singh would not be projected lest the BJP raised the issue of the Multai police firing during his rule in 1998 when 17 farmers were killed.

In his speech, Gandhi reviled Prime Minister Modi and Chouhan for not paying heed to concerns of the farmers, while writing off loans of big industrialists. He said 1,200 farmers had committed suicide in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress showcased not just the United Progressive Alliance’s farm-friendly policies, but also those of Congress governments led by Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.

In a nearby village, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella body of farm organisations, also held a public meeting on Tuesday and a day-long fast to mark the anniversary on Wednesday. Avik Saha, one of its leaders, said Bajrang Dal supporters were among the critics who publicly criticised the Narendra Modi government and Chouhan.

In New Delhi, Cabinet Minister Arun Jaitley rebutted Gandhi’s allegations. He said Gandhi’s claims on loans to industrialists and jobs not being created were not based on facts. In Chandigarh, protesting farmers ended their agitation on Wednesday. The Union Cabinet also formally announced a package for sugarcane farmers.

With inputs from Archis Mohan

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