It had been a genuine case of farmers’ grievance untended for seasons together. Cumulated anger began simmering since January this year, but the Madhya Pradesh administration failed to measure its gravity. Early June saw an outbreak of protests that killed eight people in Mandsaur of fertile Malwa, while local reports said four farmers committed suicide in just two days towards the end of its second week. None of these has unsettled chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has been in the seat of power for two-and-half terms now. For, his party, the BJP, is in a catch-22 situation: the CM continues to be a popular leader to date among the voters of a state that has given the saffron outfit 26 out of its 29 MPs in 2014 general elections.
Farmers had been under distress for several factors. They had prepared a well thought-out calendar: rabi crop had been cultivated by mid-February; wedding season was in April-May. Farmers in neighbouring Maharashtra were slated to protest this month, to which their counterparts in Madhya Pradesh unanimously decided to join for 10 days starting June 1 when there was less number of weddings. There was a WhatsApp message sent out, asking to shut down Malwa villages with no trade—and it went viral.
Then, on June 5, some farmers defied the protest call and went to the Piplia mandi in Mandsaur district. Subsequently, agitating farmers and traders had a face-off. The RSS-backed Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), which remained silent for long, joined the protest at a later stage—only to soon withdraw, apparently after they met the CM separately. This move infuriated farmers who were supporting the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (RKMS), the organisation spearheading the protest. Things snowballed.
Eight people died in the June 6 firing, farmers blame CRPF and the police. The protestors equate the firing with pellet bullets that killed many in Kashmir last year. RKMS leader Shiv Kumar Sharma aka Kakkaji, who gave the call Khushali ke do ayam, reen mukt aur pura daam, caught the imagination of the farmers. Kakkaji, who is planning to move the Indore high court and National Human Rights Commission, accuses the Chouhan government of hoodwinking farmers by announcing zero interest loan while putting the pressure of 15-18 per cent interest when they default.
“Farmers are supposed to pay back loans by March 15 whereas the mandi opens after April 15,” Kakkaji, 65, tells Outlook. “Some start getting payment of their cultivation by cheque or cash in May-June, like it happened this time too. But about half the farmers are yet to receive payments.” In short, a defaulter has to pay 15 per cent interest on loan—this, when farmers spend 3 per cent more on transport and other heads. “So in the name of interest free loan it is 15 per cent loot by the government,” he adds.
The farmers equate the police firing with the use of pellets against protestors in Kashmir.
This is not the first time this farmer leader has given Chouhan sleepless nights. Six years ago, Kakkaji, as the BKS head, organised a farmers’ protest in Raesen district’s Bareli tehsil, which is close to Chouhan’s village and constituency. One BKS protester died in the incident on May 7, 2011. The running battle between Chouhan and Kakkaji came to such a pass over a period of time that he was removed from the Kisan Sangh, like it happened with Laljibhai Patel, the BKS leader from Gujarat who had a running battle with then chief minister Narendra Modi in early 2000. Both Lalji and Kakkaji have been against government policies on farmers.
Chouhan, 58, on the other hand, has a knack of keeping everyone happy. They include the RSS—for them, he walks an extra mile—and the voters, with whom he has a direct contact. If many don’t see him as an able administrator, the CM is widely regarded for his integrity—despite the multicrore Vyapam scam.
But, this time it was perhaps too much of a concerted effort by the government machinery to go for an orchestration: the families of those killed in the Mandsaur firing dramatically came from their villages to request the CM to break his ‘peace fast’. Sources say families went to meet him with their own grievances. The announcement of compensation of Rs 1 crore and a government job has also had a negative effect on those whose properties such as houses and vehicles were damaged. They feel cheated since they didn’t get any compensation.
About seven helipads, sources say, were built in a short period of a few days across the state so that the CM could visit the houses of the victims. In reality, they say Chouhan doesn’t want to take chances with angry farmers, which is why he was exclusively using chopper to visit the victims’ families.
Speculations were high that the CM will be replaced soon. But Chouhan has an RSS shield around him. He adopts all those policies or issues close to the RSS philosophy—he started a Mukhya Mantri Teerth Darshan Yojana that is close to Sangh’s thinking, organic cultivation that is close to RSS ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya’s philosophy.
Last year, Chouhan organised the Mahakumbh in Ujjain, which in normal course was due to happen. But there was a twist in the turn. The CM also organised a Vichar Mahakumbh that used to happen in earlier times to hold dialogue between kings and the public, with priests playing the interface. This special event was attended by all top leaders of the RSS and its affiliate organisations in Madhya Pradesh; top priests of the country were present at the three-day function. A huge pandal was put up to serve 3,000 people with lavish food. It is alleged that the government bore all the expenses.
The Narmada seva yatra was also another important event in Chouhan’s tenure. It saw the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, BJP president Amit Shah, Buddhist spiritual leader Dalai Lama, classical musician Pandit Jasraj and all state cabinet ministers. Modi has been appreciative of Chouhan’s work.
This way, Chouhan has done social engineering well and built a personal rapport with the people. In fact, Modi appreciated Chouhan’s “unfettering dedication” towards the projects. It is said that unless the PM feels that Chouhan is politically necessary at the Centre, he won’t be disturbed. About Sangh, locals say that RSS feels ahsan (gratitude) towards Chouhan. Thus, Chouhan’s image in decision-making circles is quite strong. It is said the government machinery has become more Sangh-centric than focused on people.
To seek political advantage of the situation, Opposition leader from the Congress Jyotiraditya Scindia tried to visit some of the affected places, but he was disallowed. Patidar reservation leader Hardik Patel was also stopped. The Congress is in disarray in the state because of indecision over its organisational set-up. It is said that there is no junoon (passion) amongst the Congress workers; rather they are completely demoralised and confused. According to sources, if Kamal Nath is the chief ministerial candidate next year, others senior leaders in the party may rally behind him since he is the tallest Congress leader in the state. But vacillation in the Congress is only helping Chouhan grow further in stature. The CM, a Kirar by caste, is seen as a humble man with integrity, loyalty towards the RSS and direct connect with the people.
The administration is apparently bringing in changes in school next academic session’s textbooks by incorporating late Upadhyaya, alongside Modi and Chouhan. There are also reports that Chouhan might implement Bihar-like alcohol prohibition in his central Indian state. It has the potential to consolidate women votes.
Soon after the June 6 killings in the farmers’ agitation, there was a buzz that Kailash Vijayvargia, who is stated to be close to Shah and is currently the party’s national general secretary, will replace Chouhan. But locals say that although the CM is on a weaker wicket, his party in the state has no alternate leader who can give a good fight in the next assembly election.