Even before the first vote was cast in the 2019 elections, it was always obvious that Uttar Pradesh held the key to whether or not prime minister Narendra Modi comes back to power. Other scenarios, by the pro-BJP camp, like the BJP/NDA making up what it loses in UP by wins in Odisha, West Bengal and the North East, are essentially variants of the same theme of the centrality of UP. With the BSP and the SP tying up, it was always going to be tougher for the BJP, though there are some who argue that caste is no longer as central to the elections as it once was; if it was, the argument goes, India’s caste-warriors would never have lost as badly as they have on various occasions in the past. It is also argued that, while caste has not lost its centrality, it is not going to be easy to get the SP supporters to vote BSP and vice versa.
While we have to wait another few weeks to know what actually happened, if Modi does badly in Uttar Pradesh, a big factor will be the government’s policies on cows and cane; even if the BJP manages to hold on to its seats, the fact that it has been given a scare is due to these two factors. The policy on cows began with candidate Modi’s running down the ‘pink’ revolution—export of beef—in companion to the ‘green’ and ‘white’ revolutions of the past and, later, the fact that the UP government never acted firmly on the illegal actions of gaurakshaks even after incidents of lynching undoubtedly encouraged them. If those cultivating crops were hit by their poor prices, those who earned their livelihood from the dairy sector were hit by not getting money for their old cattle—this included even buffaloes—and, more important, were left paying the bill for their feed. Since 13-15 million cattle and buffaloes are slaughtered every year, assuming the business ground to a complete halt due to the gaurakshak terror, farmers would end up with a `30,000 crore additional food bill across the country in just the first year, assuming a feed cost of `60 per day.
And, with the menace of stray cattle, another issue came up, of them destroying crops; so, farmers had to either pay for fencing their land or had to stay up at night to guard their crops against the stray cattle.
In the case of sugarcane where, as many have pointed out, the dues from mills are currently around `10,000 crore, farmers are a disgruntled lot. The problem, in this case, is that Modi’s policies were timid, aimed at maintaining the status quo for fear of alienating the powerful cane farmers.
The cane prices that the government forces sugar mills to pay—and they have to buy all the cane brought to them—are much too high. As a result, there are always large cane dues and it is quite a farce to see the government, almost every year, warning sugar mills to pay their dues, then arresting mill officials for not doing so and, when none of this works, coming up with a sugar ‘package’ from time to time to give the mills enough money to pay their dues to farmers.
This is nowhere near a solution and merely postpones the pain to another year, but no government has been able to fix this. So when analysts talk of how Modi faces the wrath of the sugarcane farmer, this is ironical since the prime minister has done his best to ensure they continue to get a largesse other farmers don’t get. Unless post-Balakot nationalism prevails, the prime minister will have to bear the brunt of his cow and cane policies; in one case, he was unacceptably aggressive, in the other, he was too passive.