Battle for Mandsaur: Congress eyes rich harvest from farm distress

Congress President Rahul Gandhi recently held a rally in Mandsaur to mark one year of the police firing, kicking off his party’s poll campaign
Two years ago, Ghanshyam from Soni village in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh had taken a loan of Rs 100,000 from a moneylender at an annual interest rate of almost 18 per cent for replacing his old farm equipment.  He had hoped to repay the loan in time from the good rabi harvest from his two hectares.

In the last two years, few crop that Ghanshyam had cultivated fetched him substantial returns to wipe off his debt.  Dejected, he now plans to sell a portion of his land to clear the dues. “Chana, which used to be sold at Rs 6,000 per quintal, barely crossed Rs 3,000 this year. Urad prices have dropped to Rs 2,200-Rs 2,300 and methi is selling at Rs 2,200 a quintal, which a few years ago used to quote not less than Rs 7,000. Even, posta dana (poppy seeds) prices have slumped,” he said.

Ghanshyam is not alone, almost every farm household in this traditionally rich area, which falls under the Malwa-Nimar belt, has been hit by the impact of low prices.

Most farmers of Mandsaur, in fact in the Malwa-Nimar belt, have large landholdings, blessed with soil that can sustain multiple crops without losing its fertility. Even Ghanshyam is not dependent on farming alone, and owns a small auto shop along the highway.

With a large opium cultivation along with soybean, Mandsaur has one of the lowest poverty rates in Madhya Pradesh, but a high crime rate, according to official documents.

Senior state officials blamed the crackdown on the extensive opium trade for the massive agitation last year in the region and claimed that a few of those killed were not farmers but history sheeters and opium smugglers.

Opium is cultivated under strict government supervision, but given its huge premium in the international market, a massive illegal trade thrives alongside.

As crop prices plummeted, the entire economy of the region was affected, giving a foothold to the Opposition Congress to launch a concerted strike on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Many small ancillary units in Mandsaur make farm equipment like threshers and cutters. They have suffered losses due to the agrarian distress and rising prices of raw materials like steel and iron,” said Kamlesh, a resident of Soni village and Ghanshyam’s neighbour.

The Mandsaur Lok Sabha constituency has eight assembly constituencies — of which the ruling BJP currently holds seven and the Congress only one. Insiders say with resentment among farmers, the Congress is looking to wrest four-five assembly seats in Mandsaur from the BJP, including the reserved constituency of Malhargarh (under which falls Pipliyamandi, the scene of the firing on agitating farmers last year).

Coming on the back of its good showing in the rural areas of Gujarat and west Uttar Pradesh, a better performance in the Malwa-Nimar belt of Madhya Pradesh, which was once a Congress stronghold but gradually moved towards the BJP, will give the Congress another reason to take on the central government for its “anti-farmer policies” in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

A sprinkling of Patidars or Patels, along with Dalits and OBCs, has added to BJP’s woes.  According to some reports, Malwa-Nimar has the second largest population of Patidars after Gujarat and the community here has close marital ties with their Gujarat counterparts.

In fact, Hardik Patel, the Patidar quota protest leader in Gujarat, and his newly formed outfit Kisan Kranti Sena, has a decent following among the young Patels in the region.

Hardik is currently touring various parts of Madhya Pradesh to garner support for his organisation and to pay homage to the farmers killed in the police firing last year. Four of the six farmers killed in the firing were Patidars.

Some state officials accused Hardik and his outfit of instigating the 2017 violence, a reason perhaps why the administration was initially apprehensive of letting him hold public meetings in support of farmers in the state.

A concerned Shivraj Singh Chouhan government has launched an all-out attempt to woo the state’s farming community by announcing schemes like the Bhawantar Bhugtan Yojana (price deficit financing), along with massive procurement of oilseeds and pulses from farmers.

Considering caste configurations, it also appointed Balkrishna Patidar, a Patel, as minister of state for agriculture after the Mandsaur firing.

The Congress too has been eyeing the Patidars and sent state leader Rajmani Patel to the Rajya Sabha. It is also projecting Arun Yadav, son of Subhash Yadav, former deputy chief minister and among the tallest OBC leaders in the state, as the community’s new face.

During a farmers’ rally organised by the Congress in Mandsaur on Wednesday, Yadav, who till recently was the Pradesh Congress Committee chief, was referred to by some speakers as a new OBC leader.  The party is also planning to hold an OBC convention in Yadav’s home town of Khargone. 

 The move is also being seen in some quarters as an attempt to placate Yadav, who had been sulking ever since veteran Kamal Nath replaced him as PCC president.

To capitalise on the resentment, the Congress will have to wade through several such internal battles and power struggles, something which party president Rahul Gandhi referred to in his address at the farmers’ rally.

For the BJP, it needs to keep its old organisational man, Shiv Kumar Sharma (Kakkaji), in check.  Kakkaji, who has been running a relentless campaign against the Shivraj Singh government and its farmer policies for several years, has mobilised support from dissidents like Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha to protest the policies of not only the Madhya Pradesh government but also of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As Madhya Pradesh goes to the assembly polls, along with other agrarian states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the police firing in Mandsaur last year and the problem that its farmers face would remain in focus in the coming months.

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