Soon after Vladimir Putin took over as president of Russia in 2000, he was confronted with the Kursk submarine disaster that resulted in the death of 118 navy personnel. Putin was vacationing outside Moscow and handled the crisis from there. But he was criticised for not cutting short his trip and being in office. Putin confessed to this writer that he had learnt his first big lesson in politics: a leader must not only take action but the public must see him doing so. Putin never made that mistake again and has ruled Russia unchallenged since then.
Narendra Modi made a similar mistake in his first year as prime minister. He faced his first big farmers’ crisis in March 2015 when unseasonal rains damaged farmers’ crops in Punjab and Haryana leading many of them to commit suicide. Modi ensured that the afflicted farmers got a higher compensation and that all the grain they produced was procured at the Minimum Support Price (MSP). But he was criticised for not personally visiting the affected areas and sympathising with the farmers. An exasperated Modi told this writer: Tell me if a Congress leader has visited a farm in the past 10 years. Were there no farming calamities then? As chief minister, I used to regularly visit farmers. My job now as prime minister is to collect information, take decisions, mobilise the machinery.
Yet it is only at the fag-end of his tenure that Modi seems to have realised that more than action, it is perception that matters, especially while dealing with farmers. The india today Mood of the Nation poll conducted this January showed that 78 per cent of those surveyed felt that the condition of farmers had remained the same or even deteriorated under the Modi government. Modi himself believes that his government has done plenty to alleviate the plight of farmers. It prepared soil health cards for 170 million individual farm holdings to improve their productivity. It provided more water through completing irrigation projects. It ensured power connections to pump the water. It brought quality fertilisers by having them neem-coated to prevent adulteration. Modi kicked off the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, an insurance scheme for farmers, to compensate them for crops lost to natural calamities. He raised the MSP for grains and pulses. In 2016, he promised to double farmers’ income by 2022 though it met with much scepticism from experts.
Yet both Modi and BJP president Amit Shah seemed to have underestimated the extent of the agrarian distress across the country. A huge mistake, as farmers, farm workers and their families are the single largest voting bloc in the country, accounting for over 50 per cent of the eligible voters. In the three Hindi heartland statesMadhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarha key reason why the BJP lost to the Congress in the December assembly elections was that farmers seemed upset with the inability of the state governments to deal with their woes. The Congress lured farmers away from the BJP by promising to waive their loans if they came to power. What also turned the tide against the BJP was the widespread disruption caused by demonetisation, particularly for small businesses and unorganised labourers who were dependent on cash payments. Not to mention the perceived drying up of job opportunities across the country.
Budget 2019 was the…