Farm unions prepare to take on BJP in the political arena
At Jantar Mantar, an 18th century observatory in India’s national Capital, a farmers’ mock parliament is in session, barely a kilometre from India’s imposing Parliament. “Lawmakers” in the mock parliament unanimously sign off on a series of “legislations”, from repealing real-world “anti-farmer laws” and enacting “legal guarantees” for assured farm prices.
Protests in New Delhi by farm unions against three agricultural laws enacted by the Modi government last year are full of colourful acts of high symbolism, backed by nearly 200 cultivators from various food-bowl states.
Elsewhere in the hinterland, however, farm unions are preparing to doggedly resist agricultural policies of the Narendra Modi-led government. The protests have continued, after they began in November 2020, from Punjab to Haryana and Rajasthan, and most importantly Uttar Pradesh, where assembly elections will be held next year.
On the face of it, the farmers have had little success in convincing the government to scrap three laws that provide for freer agricultural markets, allowing big supermarkets and food businesses to directly source produce from farmers. The legislation also permit traders to stock large quantities of food for future sales and lay down a new format for contract farming.
“Aside from the question of repealing the laws, we are ready to talk on any provision of the laws at any time,” agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar has said twice this month.
The Modi government has argued that the laws are important to boost rural investments and farm incomes. Allowing food businesses to stock large quantities, for instance, is aimed at spurring private investors to build spacious, modern silos, according to the government.
These changes have riled farmers, who say the new laws will expose them to exploitation by big buyers. They prefer to rely on highly regulated government-backed markets, which are not corruption free, but allow farmers to get assured prices for cereals.
These markets are also interlocked, meaning farmers depend on middlemen to not just sell their produce but also for credit to meet cultivation costs, which some studies have shown to be a reason for market inefficiencies.
Farmers have demanded a flagship law that will legally guarantee benchmark rates, known as minimum support prices, for all produce, regardless of market conditions.
“You will see the impact (of the farmers’ agitation) in elections. Please wait,” Rakesh Tikait, a farm leader representing the Bharatiya Kisan Union outfit, said.
Behind the curtains, strategies are being drawn to campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules both at the Centre and states such as Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Farmers from both these states are heavily participating in the protests.
A core group of farm leaders make up the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella outfit coordinating the protests that are now well-organised in at least five large states: Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab. The first two are ruled by BJP.
The SKM’s coordinating committee is the engine of the politically challenging spell of protests. And as elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab approach, it is crafting a campaign especially directed at the BJP.
The SKM’s decision-making body comprises regional farm leaders who have their own turfs of influence and have, therefore, been assigned jurisdictions.
Tikait is influential in western Uttar Pradesh. He belongs to the Baliyan khap, a dominant clan among the Jat agrarian community in western UP, most of which is made up of sugarcane growers. They voted overwhelmingly for the ruling BJP in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha, and the 2017 assembly elections.
Tikait has built a groundswell of support for the agitation by raising local farm issues, such as the problems of pending payment from millers to sugarcane growers, aside from the larger demand of scrapping the farm laws.
“We are saying repeal these laws. The government is not listening. We are opposing the BJP because it has brought these laws and is refusing to drop them.” Tikait makes it clear that he will work to defeat the BJP.
His organisation has planned at least 100 mahapanchayats, or traditional clan-based rural rallies, in Uttar Pradesh. “Lucknow ko Dilli banayenge (will turn Lucknow into another Delhi,” he said.
The rallies could be embarrassing for the BJP for they purport to reveal numbers. “The state government had said they would procure every grain produced by farmers. Uttar Pradesh produced nearly 30 million tonne of wheat this time but the government procured just about 6.5 million tonne, figures till July 26 show,” said Yogendra Yadav, another key farm leader, addressing crowds last week. Such statistics are repeated ad nauseum.
The BJP, which won a landslide in the 2017 assembly polls and grabbed 76% of seats in recent local body polls, hopes its policies for farmers will pay off.
“The political fallout (of these protests) is not very concerning. Steps taken by the government to improve farm incomes, cash transfers for farmers, linking of markets, building of warehouses, expansion of procurement, funding for agricultural markets known as mandis…all these together will counter any negative fallout,” said Gopal Aggarwal, the BJP’s national spokesperson overseeing economic affairs.
Farm leaders like Gurnam Singh Charuni, a linchpin of the agitation, want to openly back candidates and even toyed with the idea of fighting polls with a joint farmers’ party.
The SKM has shot down Charuni’s proposals, suspending him twice for breaching a promise to keep the agitation apolitical. But he is too important to let go and so the suspensions each time were for a week.
“There are ways to intervene electorally by highlighting farmers’ issues,” said Darshan Pal, a medical doctor who coordinates the protests.
Charuni, a firebrand, is credited with expanding the farmers’ agitation into Haryana, before it made its way into camps along Delhi’s borders.
“What I have decided is that we will back specific candidates of various parties who will voice only farmers’ issues. That is my Mission Punjab. That should be done in all states,” Charuni said. Punjab faces elections next year.
In Rajasthan, one of the key lieutenants of the farm agitation is Amra Ram, who belongs to the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a left-affiliated organisation. The AIKS wields considerable influence in the Shekhawati belt of Rajasthan, an agriculturally and politically significant belt.
“Rajasthan is all clear. No farmer wants the farm laws,” Ram said. However, the BJP spokesperson Aggarwal said his “understanding” from interactions with farmers from states such Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh was that “farmers not only support the farm reforms but have also shown commitment to them”.
In 2017, a big farmers’ uprising failed to make any dent in the BJP’s fortunes, despite thousands marching into Delhi and sharing stage with key Opposition leaders. The Modi government won handsomely in the national election of 2019.
At the time, asked why the farmers’ agitation did not succeed in influencing voting patterns, Yogendra Yadav, a professional psephologist and political analyst before assuming his current role as farm leader, had said: “The issue is farmers don’t vote as farmers. They vote as Brahmins, Muslims, Dalits etc.” Yadav was referring to the well-known pattern of voting along caste and religious lines.
“This time it will be different,” Tikait said.