India lives in her villages. Though not often taken into consideration like many other sayings of Mahatma Gandhi, the powers that be at the Centre have paid its share of lip service to the residents of the villages- the farmers. But there are farmers and farmers. One cannot club together a peasant leader owning acres of well irrigated crop fields who went on to become a deputy prime minister of the country with the peasant who killed himself unable to bear the burden of debt when he was faced with parched crop fields when the skies did not open up. But come elections, the issue of Minimum Support Price (MSP) is an emotive one. For not getting it, the tillers of the soil may change their political allegiance and bring in a change. After all, the farmers have the numbers. And such numbers can be game changers. . The issue is having maximum impact in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana.

Minimum support price (MSP) is the minimum price set by the government for certain agricultural products at which they will be directly bought from the farmers if the open market prices are less than the cost incurred. In the run-up to the 2024 election, the MSP has suddenly taken centre-stage. After all, it is a reflection of the deep-seated concern of India’s farming community. There is no denying the fact that impact of votes cast by this community on the socio-economic fabric and political destiny of India. Small wonder, the political parties are jostling to voice their take on the MSP issue. It can no longer be relegated to the sidelines. The Congress sees itself as a champion of farmers’ rights. A legally guaranteed MSP is being demanded by it. Even if not living up to its description as the Grand Old Party, it has based its demand on the legacy of National Food Security Act, 2013. The other reason to shout its claim of being the protector of peasants interest from the rooftops is having set up the National Commission on Farmers. With such achievements under its belt, it claims the unwavering support of a robust MSP regime. In this face off with the Congress, a thin line is walked upon by the BJP-led NDA coalition. This line lies between appeasing farmers and maintaining a pro-business outlook. The government has made overtures to the farmers by offering them MSP on some crops.

Yet criticism has been drawn following the government’s insistence on crop diversification as a precondition of “selective MSP offering” . It is felt that this is an half hearted attempt to fob off farmers before elections. A balance has to be struck between market dynamics and farmers’ welfare. Any conditional support falls short of addressing systemic issues.  Given the state of integrity of the “netas” and “babudom”, a comprehensive legal framework to ensure MSP has met with some disbelief. Feasibility and effectiveness are the twin issues in this proposed system on which there is a shortfall of credibility.

Detractors feel that the fiscal burden of MSP would be untenable. Its relatively modest allocation compared to overall Union budget ought to be the reason to introduce it is the line supported by those favouring it. The role of the middlemen add to the challenge faced by the peasants. The collusion between middlemen and market administrators cannot be pushed under the carpet. Price manipulation and delayed government intervention does not improve the farmers’ plight. Need for comprehensive reform in agricultural marketing systems has been a cry in the wilderness.

The MSP issue is litmus test of safeguarding the interest of millions of tillers of the soil who are a part of a huge workforce forming the backbone of the Indian economy. The test can only be passed following a collaborative effort of the political parties contesting the 18th Lok Sabha elections. Commitments to agrarian reforms have to be shared by all the electoral contestants. At its core, the MSP issue transcends political rhetoric and partisan agendas.

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