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Posted at: Jan 6, 2019, 7:29 AM; last updated: Jan 6, 2019, 7:36 AM (IST)

Cong banks on pan-India waiver

Cong banks on pan-India waiver
No mean job: Rahul Gandhi now faces the challenge of backing up his idea of national loan waiver with economics

Aditi Tandon in New Delhi

When the Congress revived its long-defunct farmers’ cell this year, it was clear that the party was banking heavily on the distressed sector to be voted back to power. The new chairman of the cell, former BJP MP Nana Patole, has been on his toes ever since, having organised two major farmers’ rallies for the party. The promise of a pan-India loan waiver for farmers was the dominant message in both the rallies with Congress president Rahul Gandhi backing the proposal.

“We will promise a national farm-loan waiver in our 2019 Lok Sabha election manifesto, should the BJP government fail on this count. We won’t let Prime Minister Narendra Modi sleep till he grants a waiver to the farmers of the country,” said Rahul Gandhi a while ago, amid reports that the NDA regime was mulling revolutionary sops to woo back farmers who have been evidently alienated by the government policies.

A national farm loan waiver remains at the heart of the Congress strategy to win the 2019 General Election. Rahul Gandhi, sources say, is convinced that the strategy, no matter how poor in economics, is good in politics. This was evidenced by the re-election of the UPA in 2009 after then PM Manmohan Singh offered a generous over Rs 70,000-crore loan waiver to the farmers.

Can history repeat itself? Gandhi admitted at a recent press conference that a farm loan waiver is not a permanent solution to farmers’ issues, which need to be addressed on a long-term basis through sector and institutional reforms. That the waiver promise is politically expedient was evident when the Congress chief excitedly stressed on the speed with which Congress’ newly elected governments in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan took the farm loan waiver decisions. Gandhi had given his governments only 10 days to fulfil this promise.

Experts, however, say a farm loan waiver is a band-aid solution. It may be necessary for immediate relief, but won’t be helpful in the long run. That explains why almost every such waiver is conditional. Madhya Pradesh CM Kamal Nath has decided to waive the loans of farmers until March 31, 2018, which means farmers who seek financial support for the Kharif season would not get help. In the Congress-led Punjab and the BJP-led Uttar Pradesh, farm-loan waivers have been announced only for small and marginal farmers who own less than five acres of land.

Congress communications chief Randeep Singh Surjewala says farm loan waivers are essential to ease farmers’ distress. As son of Shamsher Singh Surjewala, erstwhile chief of the Congress farmers’ cell, Randeep remains a passionate votary of major support to farmers. He has led the charge against the BJP on agrarian distress accusing PM Modi’s policies of sapping the sector of all vitality. 

PM Modi for his part has started questioning the Congress idea of a national farm-loan waiver in poll rallies, the first being at Gurdaspur this week. The stance shows his government has something else — and not a comprehensive loan waiver — up its sleeves.

Gandhi, who now champions the competitive politics around farm loan waivers, would face the challenge of backing his idea up with economics.

The Congress, for now, is waiting for the vote on account that the government will present next month. Buzz is that PM Modi will spring a surprise. Depending on what it is, the Congress might have to alter its agrarian strategy for the Lok Sabha elections.

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