New Delhi: After Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Jayant Chaudhary marked his presence at the kisan mahapanchayat in Bhainswal village, Shamli on February 5, it was Priyanka Gandhi’s turn to address a similar gathering of farmers on Wednesday.
Addressing an estimated crowd of 10,000 farmers at Chilkana, Sahranpur, all of whom had congregated to protest against the new farm laws, the Congress leader minced no words to target the Union government, and said that it was pushing through the legislations without the consent of those who stand to be the most affected by them.
“This new law will help corporates. What you will sell, how much, at what cost, the corporates will decide,” said Priyanka, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “insulted” the farmers by calling them andolanjeevi.
“I am sure all you farmers must be knowing well about the laws. The corporates will give you Rs 20 and make you grow wheat according to them. It will depend upon them how you grow things,” she said.
‘Opposition parties securing political space’
Farmers’ opposition to the new farm laws has come as a shot in the arm for multiple opposition parties, who have dwindled to make their presence felt in the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mammoth organisational and media machinery. While they have been fairly vocal in supporting the farmers’ protests against the new farm laws over the last six months, most parties, however, hadn’t begun to capitalise on the resentment against the ruling BJP in their favour. But much of that appears to be changing in the last few weeks.
Given that the protests are being spearheaded by farmers’ groups in Punjab, Haryana, eastern Rajasthan, and western UP, opposition parties have come forward to openly participate in and, even organise, kisan mahapanchayats in these regions to consolidate farmers politically. While the RLD and Samajwadi Party were at the forefront in at least five such gatherings – Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor, Mathura, Baghpat, and Shamli – in western UP, the Congress, too, jumped into the ring in Saharanpur farmers’ congregation on Wednesday.
In a similar vein, Sachin Pilot, the former deputy chief minister of Rajasthan who has emerged as the primary challenger to chief minister Ashok Gehlot, too has used the opportunity to assert his leadership in eastern Rajasthan, considered to be his stronghold. In Haryana, opposition parties are utilising mahapanchayats to foreground the significance of agrarian politics once again, while in Punjab, parties like the Aam Aadmi Party and Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) are jostling with the ruling Congress to secure their lost political space.
Yet, two significant questions remain. How much can the farmers’ movement damage BJP’s prospects? And, more importantly, how much will opposition parties gain from the agitations which are spreading deep and wide?
Most political observers believe that it may be too early to see the real impact of the farmers’ agitations on the electoral dynamics, but the BJP, which has remained sturdy in face of protests, has reasons to worry.
Impact of the farmers’ agitation on the BJP
It has only been a year since the prime minister assumed his second tenure but the trust deficit between the peasant community and him is at an all-time high. “Modi has never faced such wrath in his political career. Again, India has never had a prime minister who is so frequently tagged with corporate interests,” Sudhir Panwar, a political analyst, who is now affiliated to the Samajwadi Party, told The Wire.
His observations ring true. At the Bhainswal mahapanchayat, multiple farmers accused the prime minister of being a “liar”. “Jhooth bolta hai,” said a middle-aged farmer Vineet Kadiyan, who has been a BJP supporter until recently.
“Adani-Ambani ke hith mein hi saare kaam karta hai (The prime minister works only to favour corporates like Adani-Ambani),” said one of the organisers of the mahapanchayat, Devendra Pahalwan, when asked that Modi has promised that the MSP regime will not stop.
Most of the people who had gathered at Bhainswal expressed regret for having supported the BJP in the last decade or so. “All these years, we stood firmly behind the BJP, only to be betrayed by it,” said the college-going Himank, who comes from a farming family.
Similar sentiments echoed through the speeches of community leaders who addressed the massive crowd there.
Contrary to the popular belief that the mahapanchayats are only being attended by the dominant Jat peasants after Rakesh Tikait’s showdown with the Uttar Pradesh police, the Bhainswal mahapanchayat had representatives and participants from all the 36 communities of the region, including a significant section of Muslims, who had been in oblivion since the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
Evidently, the agitational expression of a united peasant community in western UP has all the potential to diffuse the Hindu-Muslim polarisation that the saffron party has precipitated in this agrarian belt.
What was noteworthy was also that a large section of mainstream media, which has been unhesitatingly pliant and has emerged as the BJP’s most important propaganda tool, stood completely discredited. Most of them who had gathered there had something adverse to say about mainstream television and print media.
“Godi media is lying about us. They are claiming that we are Khalistanis, terrorists and whatnot. Only because of such media, we thought that Sikhs have some vested interests in opposing the farm laws. But we know the reality now, and we will not budge now,” said Ravi Chaudhry, who had come from Baraut, Baghpat, to attend the gathering. He added that the farmers’ movement is now relying only on social media platforms to spread its message, and independent media for gathering information.
This seems to have an impact. A Jat farmer Pradeep said that the BJP had created a division between communities in the region, but that will not hold anymore. “Jats were wary of voting for any other party than the BJP because the media showed that all the parties were favouring Muslims. But now we know that BJP was trying to profit because of the division,” he said, as some Muslim participants nodded in agreement. “Look at Haryana where the BJP benefitted electorally by pitching different communities against Jats,” he added.
“If we have to protect our lands, our occupation, all of us will have to come together. Muslims are also part of the farming community here, and that is why we have come here in solidarity with the rest of the communities,” said Miraz from Shamli.
If the movement grows, the BJP may lose the support of dominant Jats, who have rallied behind BJP aggressively in the region.
Different communities on one platform
The farmers’ agitations have re-energised khaps (caste councils). Otherwise known for its regressive prescriptions for society, khaps have become the anchors around which agitations against farm laws are spreading, especially in Haryana and western UP. According to some estimates, there are around 150 khaps in these regions, and have the power to influence political dynamics.
The farmers’ movement has been successful in getting together different antithetical communities on one platform, and that may be worrisome for the BJP. However, given how BJP’s polarisation model has deeply entrenched itself in these regions it remains to be seen whether the farmers’ movement will be able to overcome it, and whether opposition parties can consolidate the tide in its favour.
Panwar thought that the movement had all the potential to upstage the existing political equations, which favours the BJP, in the long run. But he also hoped that political parties should not look to own the farmers’ movement, which has grown autonomously until now. “It has been a leaderless movement. No one leader can claim that the movement is his showing. One can find similarities between the JP’s anti-corruption movement and the current peasant agitations in that sense.”
“The participation of all communities in mahapanchayats shows that the peasant community is asserting itself beyond caste, religious and communitarian affiliations,” he said.
He said that there were three clear inferences which one can draw from the way the movement has evolved. “One, the farmers’ movement has moved away from Delhi. When it was limited to Delhi, the protest was restrained by the fact that it could not mobilise a large chunk of the public. Now it is spreading beyond the capital,” he said, adding that support of political parties was necessary to move the agitations beyond Delhi.
“Two”, he said, “what started off as protests against farm laws have now evolved into a larger agitation against the general decline of the rural economy under the Modi regime. In most of the mahapanchayats, labourers, unemployed youth, and the poor are participating. In that sense, the rural economy has found political expression again.”
“Finally, the movement is clearly anti-PM and anti-BJP. The farmers know that they are fighting against the Modi-led Centre. And the surge against the Union government has happened within one year of Modi’s second term. The political environment is charged currently. It remains to be seen what shape it takes in the near future,” he said.