The other side of the coin
I had heard it from many Congressmen on the campaign trail, including those as high up as Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan but dismissed it as a case of sour grapes. Now while travelling through parts of Gujarat, I have heard it from the common people, too – perhaps the lowest down on the rungs of the social ladder as they can get: the farmers of Gujarat. They are not connected but the complaint is the same: about a biased media this election season which simply, according to them, blanks out the other point of view and does not bring their stories to the rest of the world.
For example, only last month, farmers in South Gujarat jammed the national highway near Surat with 1100 tractors that extended down the road for 15kms in protest against the compulsory and non-compensated acquisition of their land by the Gujarat government for a Special Investment Region that would have turned their lush green fields into a concrete jungle but the media was simply not interested in reporting the event, says Jayesh Patel, the chairman of the Gujarat Khedo Samaj which is fighting for the rights of these farmers. “They only want to talk about a golden Gujarat. But beneath that golden surface the green Gujarat is turning to dust, farmers are committing suicides, they are selling off their lands in distress. But that is no story for the national media.”
But his daughter, who is a doctor in the city and has read this newspaper on occasion, has persuaded Jayeshbhai to speak to the Hindustan Times. So he has taken time off campaigning to gather farmers in the heat and under the blazing afternoon sun to narrate to me their tales of woe. And these are aplenty – lack of adequate electricity, diversion of water to industry, no subsidies on agricultural products and a grossly unfair procurement price for their crops, among others.
The discontent is so high among the farmers that Jayeshbhai says it will reflect in the results of these elections. “Beyond Hindutva there is something called survival and that very survival is at stake in a regime that is crushing farmers under the weight of industry and capitalism. I was once upon a time ideologically committed to the BJP and its policies. But now I am ideologically bitterly opposed to it.’’ The ideological commitment was to Hindutva, now the ideological opposition is to its crony capitalism that is systematically destroying farmers and making criminals out of them. Patel and other farmers are greatly upset that under the 2013 Gujarat Irrigation Act that established a volumetric system of water distribution, farmers are firstly not supplied enough water for their farms and if they draw any extra water from their own rivers through lift irrigation or canalisation, they are immediately arrested for depleting water resources reserved for industry. “ I do not think any other state in this country treats its farmers so despicably,” he says. “For all such reasons farmers are just dying and soon we will be left with not much agriculture in this state.”
Two days before voting day in Gujarat (April 30) Hemant Fitter, another ‘khandaani’ BJP ideologue, says his family which has never voted for anyone but the BJP all their life, might this time opt for the Congress for the policies of the Narendra Modi –led government in the state are simply crushing even small and medium entrepreneurs under a great burden of debt (they did). He, too, has a serious grouse against the ‘national media’ and as a former spokesperson of the Gujarat Parivartan Party he says he has actually been a victim – having had to be edited out of shows for having attempted to bring the true facts before the audiences. “The discontent is aplenty but while some of us are aware of why things are happening the way they are, the majority of the people do not even know what is happening to them because the media is virtually sold out and there are very few organisations who have the courage to speak the truth.”
When I thank him for taking time off his busy schedule to help me meet people across the villages of south Gujarat, he says, ‘’No favours done. I am glad there was at last someone who was willing to listen to the other side and understand our point of view.”
Though I am venturing no guesses, by most accounts of these kind of people opinion – and votes – are almost equally divided with a slight advantage to Modi and the BJP – an expression of incredulity is met with a resigned smile, “We know how the projections have been made to the rest of the world. But what we are telling you is the truth,’’ they say. I have placed a wager with them for counting day: I will send them Alphonso mangoes from Bombay if they prove right, but if the opinion polls are justified, they must take back their words about a biased media. So confident are they about themselves that they regret I might be the loser, having to shell out a tidy sum for enough Alphonsos to go round for everybody. Though this seems to have now become a state for the rich by the rich, clearly it is the consolidation of the poor of all hues that is beginning to count.
“Be prepared for a surprise, at least from our region,” says Maganbhai Patel another farmer from Ambetha village whose lands are under threat of acquisition from the government for the purpose” we will die before we give in or give up. We will fight. But before that we will vote.’’
They voted in large numbers to save their livelihood.
Now I am waiting to see who proves right.