It’s time to nail a canard. Even as the early counting trends were trickling in for the 2022 assembly elections, full-throttled slander again the farmers’ movement began. Those who never wanted the movement to exist in the first place got an opportunity to declare that it never existed for the farmers. Those who would like the government to turn a blind eye to the farmers grabbed this opportunity to conclude that the farmers’ movement was a big conceit, that it was a protest of the select few that had no wider traction. A powerful tale was spun by the powerful: The farmers’ movement had no impact on the elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand. The implication was clear – no one needs to bother about them.
Once the template was designed, all kinds of facts were marshalled to prove this point. The total rout of the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, an outfit led by Balbir Singh Rajewal and many other farmer leaders from Punjab, was presented as evidence that the farmers did not care for the movement in its very heartland. The thrust of the media attack was, as expected, based on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s victory in Uttar Pradesh. BJP’s clean sweep in the Lakhimpur Kheri district was used to argue that the incident did not matter. Data from the first phase of election was cited to prove that the BJP triumphed in the home of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and that even the Jats stayed with the BJP. It was claimed that the BJP trumped Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in Rakesh Tikait’s own polling booth.
Like all canards, this claim is a mix of conceptual deceit, half-truths and total fabrication. Now that we have fine-grained data on the election results, we can put many of these lies to rest. We also have a nuanced post-poll survey based analysis of the verdict in The Hindu by the Lokniti-CSDS team. So, we don’t need to guess how the farmers reacted to the movement and how it affected their voting decision.
Evidence shows impact
First, the conceptual deceit. The entire propaganda is based on conflating two different claims. The first claim is that the farmers’ movement by itself did not succeed in ensuring the defeat of the BJP. That would be a reasonable and accurate reading of the verdict in the four states where the BJP came back to power. That would also be unsurprising. No movement by itself determines electoral outcomes. Movements only prepare the ground, maybe tilt it, but finally, political parties have to convert the popular sentiment into voting decisions. The farmers’ movement on its own did not and could not have ensured the defeat of the BJP. But that is very different from saying that the farmers’ movement had no impact on the farmers and their electoral choices and that it was not popular.
Take Punjab first. The point is not that the impact of the farm movement was too little, but that it was too much. Anyone who knows anything about Punjab politics would tell you that the farmers’ movement was omnipresent in the state. If you wanted to stay relevant in politics, you had no option but to stand with the farmers. The opposition (AAP and Shiromani Akali Dal) supported it, the ruling party (Congress) had to support it too. Those who won the election swore by the movement, as did those who lost. The Lokniti-CSDS survey confirms that 84 per cent of Punjabi voters supported the farmers’ movement. The BJP, the only party to oppose the movement, was decimated.
As for the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) and Samyukt Sangharsh Party (SSP), the two outfits floated on the eve of elections by farmer leaders Balbir Singh Rajewal and Gurnam Singh Chadhuni respectively, it would be a joke to view these parties as a measure of the strength of the farmers’ movement. The truth is that the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), the joint platform of the farmers’ movement, had disowned these political outfits the day these were formed. Their leaders were suspended from the Morcha. The fact is that not even one of the top farm unions of Punjab eventually supported these parties; some who initially declared support finally withdrew. These parties met the fate they were expected to.
In Uttar Pradesh, there is no doubt that the BJP’s victory is a setback to the farmers’ movement. The SKM had given a call to the voters of UP to “punish” the anti-farmer BJP in this election. Clearly, if all the farmers of UP had heeded this call, the BJP would not have come back to power. If that is failure, the movement did fail. But did it not have any significant impact?
Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey suggests otherwise. (The post-poll survey is to be trusted, as its presentation takes the final results into account. So, the BJP voters would have the same weight in this post-poll analysis as in the final outcome.) According to this survey, as many as 49 per cent voters supported the farmers’ movement; only 22 per cent were opposed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw the three farm laws was supported by 46 per cent voters, with just 11 per cent opposed to it (among the farmers, it was 54 per cent for and 11 per cent against). Did it make a difference to their vote? As many 55 per cent farmers said that the movement made a difference to their voting decision. Among those who said so, the BJP trailed behind the Samajwadi Party-RLD combine by as much as 11 percentage points.
The BJP was aware of this, and of the power of the stray cattle menace. This is what forced the BJP and every other party to raise the farmers’ issues during the election campaign. This is what forced the PM to acknowledge the stray cattle menace. The survey records support for the farmers’ movement in the Terai area of Uttarakhand as well. So much about the propaganda that the farmers’ movement did not make a difference!
What about Lakhimpur Kheri
What about the Lakhimpur Kheri murders? Its impact cannot and should not be judged by election outcome in that area, which was never a centre of the farmers’ movement. We must not forget that the BJP had won the 2018 assembly election in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh following the police firing on farmers in 2017. Again, the Lokniti survey captures the impact of the Lakhimpur incident. Nearly half, 48 per cent of all voters said this massacre influenced their voting decision; among them, the BJP trailed by 16 percentage points. More importantly, 47 per cent of all voters in UP agreed – with just 26 per cent disagreement – with the suggestion that the PM should have removed Ajay Mishra Teni from the council of ministers.
As for the BJP’s victory in western UP, it is no different or better than the rest of the state. If anything, the BJP’s support has declined more sharply in these core areas of the farmer movement. The BJP lost 13 of the 19 assembly seats in the four districts – Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Shamli and Baghpat – where most of the farmers at the Gazipur morcha came from. Many of the big leaders of BJP, accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, were defeated here. The Jat vote did get split more or less evenly between BJP and SP-RLD – much to the disappointment of the RLD – but this was a big shift away from the monopoly of the BJP since the Muzaffarpur riots in 2013.
Changing the pitch
Finally, what about Rakesh Tikait’s own booth? It turns out that this was fake news that mainstream media fell for. Not that it matters, but his own booth (number 166, in Sisauli village, Budhana assembly constituency) saw RLD candidate get 521 votes as against 162 votes for the BJP.
To sum up: The historic farmers’ movement redefined the ground of electoral politics. It did not decide the specific outcome, but that cannot happen without conscious partisan effort. In this test match, farm organisations were neither bowlers, nor batsmen. They prepared the wicket, no doubt. And it made things difficult for the batting side. But it was for the bowlers from the opposition parties to take wickets. They failed, not the movement.
The author thanks Lokniti CSDS for data provided to him.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.