Farmer protests are election-proof
In 2011, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement captured the public imagination, forcing political parties not only to support the cause, but also to align with its policies. The main leaders of the movement, Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, did not want it to run out of steam and be swallowed up by the political parties. So, they launched their own outfit, the Aam Aadmi party, on November 26, 2012.
Political parties born out of mass movements have had mixed results in India. Asom Gana Parishad, who has his origins in the agitation against illegal migrants, went to form the government of Assam before his stock dwindled. A new state political formation, born out of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, barely managed to register its presence in the assembly ballots held earlier this year.
Now, as the country prepares for the next round of parliamentary elections slated for early next year, leaders of the ongoing agricultural protests are feeling the heat. Constituents and supporters ask them a question: whether or not to actively influence the elections.
Farmers are a politically influential group in at least three of the five states where elections are scheduled. As the hub of the turmoil, the Punjab is likely to feel the farmers’ sentiment the most. Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where the BJP is in power, are also expected to feel it to some extent.
Farmers’ unions have launched a mission in UP and Uttarakhand to defeat the ruling party. But in the Punjab, where Congress is in power, such a mission does not exist. In a clear exercise of its influence, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body for 32 peasant organizations, called a meeting of all voters in Chandigarh on September 10 and called on all political parties in the state to abstain. to campaign until the Election Commission officially announces the polls. Most parties accepted it, albeit reluctantly.
“People are emotionally attached to the movement,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal, head of Union Bhartiya Kisan (Rajewal). “All the discussions in the villages revolve around agitation. It is surprising that many political parties started their campaign several months before the elections. It bothers people. The political campaign is trying to wean them in different directions. This may prevent the Punjab from continuing as the backbone of this movement. So we told the political parties not to organize rallies.
Rajewal has 50 years of experience working for farmers, and his ideological weight has made him the first among his peers in Morcha. According to him, Morcha wants to remain apolitical. Said Jagmohan Singh, General Secretary of BKU (Dakaunda): “One thing is clear: not all farmers can fight together against the elections. According to our constitution, if someone wants to run for office, or support someone in an election above the bloc level, that person must resign. Some organizations want to boycott all parties, while others are silent. Some organizations had in the past openly supported the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi party.
A huge rally of farmers in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, last month made the BJP suspicious. In 2013, a mahapanchayat of farmers in the region was followed by community riots, which saw the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance win 73 of Lok Sabha’s 80 seats in the state the following year. This time, however, Muzaffarnagar’s Jat farmer leader Rakesh Tikait called for Hindu-Muslim unity. The state farmers’ unions have also formed their own coordinating body and are holding rallies.
In the Punjab, at least one BKU leader, Gurnam Singh Charuni, appears to be planning to enter politics. Charuni launched an appeal in July for the “Punjab Mission”, telling farmers to stand for election; the Morcha responded by immediately suspending him. Chastised, he said he would not run for office, and even fended off a businessman who wanted him to lead a political party and become chief minister. But Charuni has toured Punjab and Haryana asking people to reject traditional parties and align their own leaders.
“It’s not just a movement of farmers; it is a dharmayudh, ”Charuni said. “In Uttar Pradesh, there are eight crores of farmers. The state government was formed after [the ruling party] won 3.5 million votes. In Punjab there are 90 lakhs of farmers, and the party that won last time got 59 lakhs of votes. Farmers can change the political system. What has happened in Punjab so far is that a person with money becomes a candidate and wins the election. What I am saying is that the voter should challenge. Once you have the power, you can overrule farm laws and force businesses. “
But other leaders point out that Charuni does not have a base in Punjab because he is from Haryana. “Charuni was my sidekick,” Rajewal said. “Its gatherings do not attract large crowds. He wants to follow a separate line, but Morcha will be apolitical because our goal is the repeal of agricultural laws.
The situation in Punjab echoes what happened in Delhi after Hazare’s unrest. As Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit had to pay the price for anti-government sentiment. The Congressional high command appeared to withdraw support for her, and Kejriwal and the AAP beat her in the assembly ballots that followed.
Likewise, in Punjab, Amarinder Singh had to quit his post as chief minister due to internal wrangling in Congress as well as growing opposition to power, in part fueled by farmer unrest. The difference is that the unions might not be able to stand up against the new chief minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, as firmly as the AAP did in Delhi.
The AAP imagines its chances in this politically fluid situation in the Punjab. It is likely that the heads of farmers in the field will contest the ballot boxes. Interestingly, in the 2014 elections in Lok Sabha, the party aligned Charuni’s wife with Kurukshetra. Rajewal’s union had also supported him in previous Assembly polls. But the AAP would still need a credible candidate for the post of chief minister to build on favorable conditions.
The peasant agitation, for its part, ended a year. According to Rajewal, the resolution should arrive soon. “I am fully convinced of it,” he said. “The loopholes in the law have been explained to the government, and the government itself has accepted [that the lacunas existed]. It’s just that the government wants an honorable exit. This is their rajhath (royal stubbornness).
But has the movement accomplished anything concrete so far? “Before Morcha, the slogan was Modi hai toh mumkin hai (If it’s Modi, it’s possible). This turmoil shattered the myth of his invincibility. He too can be challenged. It has given courage to many people across the country. The awareness has multiplied, ”said Rajewal.
The Union government, however, has shown no sign of weakening. But Morcha remains resolute. “We are steadfast, as the Punjab showed during the Mughal and British times,” he said. “Any leader who leaves Morcha will be defeated in the Punjab. They will lose face.
Jagmohan Singh said, “The kind of response we got during the turmoil, it is our duty to give our all for this movement. If we don’t get an honorable deal, we don’t have a moral right to return to our villages.