New Delhi: To attract India's rural vote in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress has promised a nationwide farm loan waiver. The announcement highlights the importance of India's rural voters. An oft-cited explanation for the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) dismal performance in the assembly elections earlier in December is that of rural discontent and the party's inability to address farmers' concerns. However, data from post-poll surveys conducted by Lokniti, a research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), suggest that the BJP's failure were, on the whole, a result of an aggregate loss in vote share rather than losses in the farmer vote share, specifically.
In these assembly elections, the BJP lost support in both urban and rural areas. Unlike Gujarat, the urban-rural divide was much weaker due to a decline in support in urban constituencies as well.
The CSDS survey, which asked farmers how they voted, reveals that both the BJP and Congress received equivalent support among farmers in Madhya Pradesh. In fact, the party even managed to win most seats in Mandsaur, the hotbed of farmers' protests in MP last year. In Rajasthan, the Congress had a marginal lead over the BJP among farmers. Only in Chhattisgarh, there was a wide gap between the BJP and Congress among farmers.
When parties lose elections, their vote share usually reduces across the board, which is what happened in these elections for the BJP. There is limited evidence for widespread backlash against the BJP by rural voters.
However, while there may be no rural backlash against the BJP, given their importance, issues of rural voters will dominate the build-up to Elections 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's counters to the opposition's claims of rural distress have been his promise of doubling farm incomes by 2022 and a bundle of central government welfare schemes targeted at low-income rural households. Journalist Harish Damodaran recently wrote that the government's performance has been relatively weak on the first objective-increasing farm incomes.
What does the survey data reveal about public perception on both these claims? Most farmers reported rarely receiving the right prices for their crops. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, about one-fourth (27% and 23%, respectively) of the farmers said they usually receive the right prices for their crops. This figure was much lower in Chhattisgarh where only 16% farmers said so.
In the Mood of the Nation Survey conducted earlier this year, 27% had said that they usually receive the right prices for their crops. The Madhya Pradesh government's much-publicized Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, which paid farmers for differences between the market price and the minimum support price, failed to increase farm income with almost 60% of farmers saying that they did not benefit from the scheme.
Further, we compare awareness and self-reported beneficiary status for four central government schemes. There is very high awareness about the government's flagship programmes for LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinders, Ujjwala Yojana, and bank accounts, Jan Dhan Yojana.
Similarly, more than 80% farmers said that they know about Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, a crop insurance scheme, but awareness about the household electrification programme, Saubhagya Scheme, was relatively lower, with only around two-thirds being aware of the scheme across all the three states. The pool of actual beneficiaries is relatively smaller, but large in terms of the magnitude. For instance, almost half of the rural respondents said they had benefitted from the Ujjwala Yojana.
How will this play out over the next few months as Modi campaigns for another term at the Centre? Increasing farm prices in the short-run is difficult. Also, it may be politically imprudent due to the Indian voter's high sensitivity to inflation.
Even in the current elections, when food inflation had been quite low, more than one-sixth of the respondents listed it as their most important issue while voting.
Thus, shifting the narrative away from crop prices and wages to its bundle of welfare schemes may be a favourable option for the BJP. Though, even this may not guarantee electoral success as it would partly depend on public satisfaction with the government's services. The voter is also often prone to punishing incumbents despite crediting them for work. A massive upsurge in rural support was instrumental in the BJP's victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The next few months will reveal if it has done enough to retain this expanded support.
Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Pranav Gupta is a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley, US.