New Delhi: Amidst the ongoing farmers’ protest on the borders of Delhi and simmering anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh, opposition parties in the state including the Indian National Congress and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) have organised a series of mahapanchayats. If the massive crowds at the rallies are something to go by, the opposition parties may be in a good place to win over the aggrieved farmers’ votes, and with an effective strategy could consolidate the anger against the ruling BJP. The rallies – a starting point – assume greater significance in the current context as Uttar Pradesh is to hold its three-tier panchayat elections in April this year and then assembly elections in 2022.
Initially maintaining a safe distance from the movement, leaders are now not shying away from consolidating votes in their favour. Barring the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has largely been missing from the action, most other opposition parties have registered their presence in the mahapanchayats.
The political scenario in western UP has dramatically turned against the BJP since the farmers’ protests erupted, as leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), BKU (Bharatiya Kisan Union), AIKS (All India Kisan Sabha) and other farmers’ organisations collectively said that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP regime is “anti-farmer” for bringing in the three contentious farm laws.
The Jat community in UP, dominant in the western part of the state, had shifted allegiance to the BJP in the past few elections. However, many now have turned against the saffron party, because they believe that the BJP is not willing to take back the farm Acts which they have been protesting against for the past several months. The rise of Rakesh Tikait, a Jat leader and a member of the BKU, and his ability to mobilise thousands of farmers also suggests a change in the way the Jats perceive the BJP.
UP Congress in-charge Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has visited several districts over the past few months and RLD’s Jayant Chaudhary has also taken centre stage as he visits village after village for rallies and mahapanchayats across the state.
However, political analysts say that efforts by the Congress party will not necessarily convert into votes and that the SP and RLD may be the biggest beneficiaries of the anger towards BJP.
‘Priyanka Gandhi working really hard, will succeed’: Congress
The Congress is one of the main parties using this opportunity to the fullest by conducting timely rallies and participating in mahapanchayats. One of the first rallies attended by Congress UP in-charge Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was in Saharanpur, which Congress leader Imran Masood had organised.
Despite this, many say that it will not convert into votes. “The BJP’s loss is not necessarily Congress’s profit,” a political analyst told The Wire.
Masood, a member of advisory council of the UP Congress Committee, told The Wire that both the BSP and SP are unclear on their position on the farmers’ protest and have not come out fully in their support. He told The Wire, “In the coming days, I think the Congress party will be successful because we are working really hard and it will definitely have an impact.”
A top party leader told The Wire that there is definitely an attempt by Priyanka to win over the distraught voters, but due to the lack of prominent faces in the state, the Congress is not able to completely encash the opportunity and turn it to their favour. He also said that the search for such faces is ongoing.
‘Jats above Hindu-Muslim politics now’: Samajwadi Party
Udayveer Singh, member of the state legislative council and Samajwadi Party leader, feels that the RLD may be the biggest political beneficiary of the farmers’ protest in UP, but blames the RLD for disrupting the Jat-Muslim combination in Western UP by forming an alliance with the BJP.
“By standing with us now, the RLD has gotten rid of its baggage of Hindu-Muslim that it had acquired during its alliance with the BJP, and regained its Jat voters,” he told The Wire. The SP and RLD have decided to join hands in upcoming elections.
“The Jat voters who had shifted to the BJP are now completely disappointed. Their grievances are not being heard. For the first time ever, they have started to not only speak against the BJP, but even Modi. They can now see that Modi only stands for corporate powers, and I have personally seen this change in the past few months.”
Singh believes that while elections in eastern UP are fought over issues of social equations, it is easy to create a Hindu vs Muslim atmosphere in western UP.
He said that people have now started seeing through communal politics that the BJP uses for votes. He told The Wire, “We had been trying to explain to Jats that every person who dissents is not a Pakistani or anti-national. But when Jats went to Delhi to protest and came back after being termed Khalistani and anti-national, they understood the “Hindu-Muslim”, “Pakistani” and “anti-national” farce that BJP had been using for the longest time.”
‘Farmers don’t want political parties to take the mic’: Samajwadi Party
Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav has time and again been criticised for not being actively involved in the farmers’ protest. Udayveer Singh says that the farmers who had started the movement have repeatedly said that they did not want politicians to take over their stage and that Yadav is only respecting that.
“The farmers clearly did not want politicians to take over their stage and movement; other leaders such as Priyanka Gandhi have done just that. Seeing 20,000 people, giving a few speeches…is not smart politics. We on the other hand are trying to find ways to sustain this movement, to speak to aggrieved parties and understand them. The BJP was trying to make the farmers’ protest a communal issue. If we start leading this movement, the BJP would have succeeded. Our local leadership is definitely working to help the farmers while they fight their fight.”
Akhilesh Yadav’s conscious decision not to take centrestage has been overshadowed by the recent emergence of RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary owing to the farmer’s protest. Chaudhary seems to have leverage here, and has more acceptance given that he himself is a Jat and comes from a farming background.
Singh added that the BJP is guilty of overpromising during the polls. He said that even though the rates of fuel, electricity and even water have increased, the prices of sugarcanes have hardly seen any increase in the past several years. One of the main concerns of protesting farmers from UP has been the stagnant rate of sugarcanes, which is mainly grown in the western part of the state.
Referring to the upcoming panchayat elections this year and the assembly elections next year, he added, metaphorically, “Kheti tayyar hai, fasal kaat ke wo le jaayega jiske workers kaatne ko tayyar hongey – SP ke alawa kisi party ke paas wo workers nahin hai jo BJP ke saamne fasal kaatne ki shamta rakhte hain (The farms are ready, but the crop will go to the group whose workers are ready to harvest it – and other than the SP, no party has workers with the ability to harvest the crop in competition with the BJP).”
He also said that the BSP has sided with the BJP on several issues and is on the BJP’s side now.
‘The iron is hot, and the farmers know it’: RLD
It is also important to note that the RLD has seen a resurgence in Uttar Pradesh since the farmers’ agitation began with its leader, former MP Jayant Chaudhary, actively participating in mahapanchayats and rallies across the state.
Chaudhary told The Wire, “Agrarian issues are now at the forefront and the mainstream media is giving them coverage. It is being discussed. That there is a mass awakening about these issues is in itself a victory, even for us, because these are the issues closest to our heart.”
He believes that the farmers’ issue is much bigger than the three farm laws. He said, “The farmers know that the iron is hot, and this is the moment to strike. All political parties must come along with the farmers and put maximum pressure on the government. We need a strong intervention from all political parties to oppose this, because we are talking about the livelihoods of farmers. ”
Political analysts say that the coming together of Akhilesh Yadav and Jayant Chaudhary, two young leaders, may result in the defeat of the BJP in the 2022 assembly elections.
The two leaders will be seen sharing the stage at a rally in Mathura on March 19, Chaudhary told The Wire. Chaudhary added, “Organisational issues need to be sorted out and a common agenda has to be set between the two parties, but those conversations are ongoing.”
He is confident that people will shun the BJP in the upcoming panchayat elections in the state, he added.
‘We are working for the farmers in our own way’: BSP
The BSP has stood out so far, as the one opposition party not being vocal about the farmers’ protests. However, party spokesperson Sudhindhra Bhadoria is quite confident that the panchayat polls will not disappoint the BSP.
“It will become clear once the results of the polls come out who has actually made full use of the farmers’ protest. The perception about BSP is that if Dalits don’t go out on the roads, break things or create disturbance, they don’t have a voice,” he told The Wire.
He further added, “We are working in our own way, in a constitutional and legal manner and people have supported us – we have come to power so many times. We do not create disturbance like others. Our work is reflected on the grassroots level. You will see this in the forthcoming assembly elections too.” He also alleged that the “elite” media discriminates against the party.
Referring to Priyanka’s recent visits to the state, he said, “They are jumping around, doing rallies and making speeches, but how many votes will they really get? We are confident about our performance. We will contest the upcoming panchayat polls and are hoping to do very well.”
He added that several leaders of the BSP have extended support to the farmers’ protest. “We are with the farmers, there is no doubt about that,” he said.
‘Practically, farm laws are not an issue in UP’: BJP
The farmers’ protest has emerged as a challenge for the BJP, at least in western UP. Farmers are not only disillusioned with the BJP, but also angry. But Sanjeev Balyan, BJP’s Union minister of state, who is also an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots case, feels that it is possible to win them back.
He told The Wire, “Some people may be upset, that is true, but a majority of them still believe in the BJP. I have been out on the field consistently and can say that with confidence. The emotional problems some people currently have with the BJP will soon be sorted out, we still have time. We are trying to meet with them, understand the farmers. Even those who have issues are ours, and we will get them back on our side.”
He added, “Practically, the bills are not an issue in UP, it is mostly only an emotional issue.” When told that farmers in Uttar Pradesh have also been vocal in protesting against the three farm laws and have also constantly expressed their dissatisfaction with the stagnant rates of sugarcanes, Balyan replied, “Yes, that is true, people are angry about that.”
In February, it was reported that Balyan was forced to flee Bhainswal village in Muzaffarnagar where he had gone with other BJP leaders to “educate” farmers about the benefits of the newly enacted farm laws.
Balyan also told The Wire that he had requested chief minister Yogi Adityanath in a rally in Meerut to increase the price of sugarcane. “I have been requesting the CM to do so and will continue doing it. I am in the favour of increasing the rates of sugarcanes because I myself come from that community and know their struggles.
However, the chief minister did not address this in his speech. Balyan said, “I am an elected leader, a part of the ruling party and it is my job to convey the people’s sentiments to the CM. At the same time, I am also a farmer. Sometimes the government is unable to agree to certain demands but I believe in continuing to convey the message of the people to the government. I am also at the same time trying to explain to the farmers that the government is not against them.”
He says that he, being a farmers’ leader, was consulted before framing the farmer bills but refused to share details of the inputs he gave.
When asked whether this dissatisfaction of the people with the BJP will affect the upcoming panchayat polls in the state, he told The Wire, “We have faith in the previous development-related activities the party has done and we will lead the panchayat polls with those. If they have complaints over one subject, there are 10 other subjects which are in our favour.”