A tale of two States

With farm distress becoming a major electoral issue in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Vikas Pathak visits two pockets of rural India, Mandsaur inMadhya Pradesh and Jodhpur district in Rajasthan, and finds that the political instincts of the rural voter are not necessarily rooted in agriculture
A few farmers sit huddled near a statue of Sardar Patel at Balaguda village in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh pouring out their woes over steaming cups of tea. The statue marks the entry point to the Patidar-dominated village. One of them, Manoj Patidar, who has just returned from the Mandsaur wholesale market, says that the goods and services tax (GST) and rising prices of diesel have made agriculture a loss-making activity. “If the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government stays for another five years, we will have to sell our lands,” says the tall farmer, his wry smile deepening the lines on his weather-worn face. In another place and State — in Rajasthan — separated by distance as well as priorities, Chhatar Singh Rathore of Tena village in Shergarh tehsil in Jodhpur district has a very different concern. He runs a roadside dhaba on National Highway 114, which connects Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. His main complaint concerns what he believes to be the wilful disregard of Rajput sentiment. Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who is seeking a second consecutive term in office, he says, has humiliated Rajputs by not backing their opposition to the film Padmaavat , and also marginalising Manvendra Singh, son of former Union Minister Jaswant Singh, who is a Rajput. With not much farming visible in the entire region, caste is the primary marker of social identity, unlike in Madhya Pradesh, where locals display a clear sense of identity as farmers. The contrast between Mandsaur and Shergarh points to the differences between two worlds. While both are rural, one is agrarian and the other is dominated by an array of non-farm activities. On November 30, all eyes were on New Delhi where there was a massive protest by farmers who had gathered from all over the country in the thousands. Opposition leaders such as Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury spoke. This event came in the wake of another landmark protest held more than a year ago. In the middle of last year, farmers’ organisations had taken out a rally that touched Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, among other places. The participants also visited Mandsaur, where, a month earlier, five farmers had been killed in police firing. Weighed down by debts, the agitating farmers were demanding loan waivers. As politics heats up in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Opposition sees farmer anger as having the potential to dent the prospects of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has performed well in most State elections held since it came to power in 2014. The reading is not far off the mark. The BJP scraped through in its stronghold of Gujarat in the 2017 Assembly elections, as a result of urban votes. The Congress, on the other hand, did well in rural Gujarat. However, one was able to get an idea of the situation while travelling through Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan over the last month. In a complex picture, the rural cannot always be conflated with the agrarian.Like many other Rajputs who have opened restaurants or dhabas because there is not enough water for farming, Chhatar Singh Rathore of the Rajput-dominated Tena village too runs one on the road towards Jodhpur. Says Rathore, “Many people in my village run restaurants on the highway. The richer Rajputs also own restaurants in Jodhpur. There are 10 restaurants in the city run by people from my village.” He tries to summarise his village’s sources of income: “Our previous generation saw many people join the Indian Army. You will find many ex-servicemen here. This generation has taken to the restaurant-catering sector in a major way. That apart, many from the village have migrated to Surat to join the cloth industry where they specialise in designing and packing. Some even race horses in Dubai.” The Rajput community in the State has gravitated towards the hospitality sector, with heritage hotels and havelis dotting the State. Many are owned by richer Rajput families. They have a traditional feel and visible ‘Rajput markers’ such as photographs of men in traditional attire holding a sword or rifle. A lot of them try to attract foreign tourists. This non-farm rural world is in sharp contrast to that of M.P., where an occupational identity centred on farming is being forged. In Shergarh tehsil of Jodhpur, caste remains the prominent identity marker, with cultural issues occupying centrestage. Rathore is unhappy with the Rajasthan government for not standing behind Rajputs on the film Padmaavat . He complains that Vasundhara Raje got the entrance to the Raj Mahal Palace in Jaipur sealed to target former royal Diya Kumari, and also humiliated the family of BJP veteran Jaswant Singh. In Tibna village, about 90 km from Jodhpur, water supply poses an acute problem. Sarpanch Bhawani Singh Rathore points to a dry hand pump which is wrapped in a sack cloth. The village has houses placed wide apart, and is populated longitudinally, one house after another for a few kilometres. It has just 300 families, says the sarpanch, of which 150 are Rajput. Other than water, villagers also complain about the lack of school teachers in the local government school. However, despite their various frustrations, they do not think of themselves as aggrieved farmers. Caste remains the key marker of identity and status. “You find three types of scenarios,” says political analyst and author Sajjan Kumar. “The first is Madhya Pradesh, where agriculture is linked to the market, with cash crops such as soyabean and cotton. Here, farming is under stress because of a fall in market prices and the impact of demonetisation. The second is seen in agrarian States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (excluding western U.P.). Their agriculture is not linked to the market, with mainly food crops such as rice and wheat being produced. An arid State such as Rajasthan presents a third scenario, where agriculture is not central to rural life.” He explains the significance of these diverse realities: “An occupational identity, where people identify as farmers, is emerging in States of the first kind, such as M.P., Maharashtra and Gujarat. In States such as U.P. and Bihar, while agriculture is central to rural life, caste and religion remain dominant identity markers in the absence of strong market linkages of agriculture. In Rajasthan, in the near absence of agriculture as a key rural vocation, identity markers are still tied to caste.” Rathore’s sentiments lend credence to this hypothesis. “I have no problem with [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi. He says we should sell pakodas if we can and I have been doing so at my restaurant,” he says. “My problem is with Vasundhara Raje. Rajputs will try to ensure a victory for Manvendra Singh at Jhalrapatan. What is a Rajput without self-respect?”
Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/a-tale-of-two-states/article25694572.ece

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