In the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Narendra Modi promised to increase farmers’ income. Yet after coming to power, his government did little towards this promise throughout its first tenure. Recently, however, the Modi government passed three “historic” bills purported to alleviate the woes of India’s farmers. The decades-long crisis faced by farmers has suddenly captured the interest of those at the helm of affairs to the extent that it has become a major point of contention between the BJP’s allies, even causing cabinet member Harsimrat Kaur Badal to resign. Why is it then that farmers’ issues have only now become part of the legislative agenda of political parties?
Data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on unlawful assemblies suggests that there was an unprecedented rise in farmers’ mobilisation during the first two years of the Modi government. Between 2014 and 2016, the number of farmers’ protests rose from 628 to 4,837 — a whopping 700 per cent increase.
It is hard to believe now that the three bills reflect the BJP’s altruism towards farmers given its inaction all these years. A more reasonable conclusion is that it reflects their realisation that a growing national farmers’ movement can no longer be ignored.
Prior to 2014, farmers mostly organised small protests at the state or local level. Farmers’ identity and interests were subsumed within caste politics, making it difficult for them to mobilise on a large scale. How did this scattered and divided constituency develop into a national movement that the Modi government could not overlook?
Seizing political opportunity
Modi’s campaign promise in 2014 was the first time in recent history that a national leader acknowledged farmers’ issues. But with no major farm policy announced in the first few months of the Modi government in 2014, the farmers took to the streets to seek what was promised. Modi’s promise of better remuneration had given farmer organisations an explicit target for mobilisation.
Capturing media attention
This growing mobilisation among farmers was further bolstered by the media attention captured by two events that transpired in 2017. In March that year, farmers from Tamil Nadu (TN) organised several weeks-long protests at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The novel tactics adopted by the TN farmers — such as wearing a garland of skulls and holding mice in their mouth — symbolised the hardships faced by farmers on a day-to-day basis and served as a wake-up call for many bystanders and politicians.
Second, in June 2017, the Madhya Pradesh Police killed six farmers in Mandsaur during a protest. The brutal killings came as a “moral shock” and were amplified on news and social media to exemplify the BJP’s adversarial behaviour towards the farmers.
Both these events were important in shifting the cultural frame in favour of farmers. Instead of the traditional media portrayals of farmers as being unruly and disruptive, these events showed the dire conditions and oppression faced by the farmers.
Mobilisation on the ground
Farmers capitalised on the heightened media attention and the anti-BJP sentiment to expand their movement. Farmer organisations recruited new members using tactics such as “pad yatras” (for instance, the Kisan Mukti Yatra) and village-level programmes all over India. They also used social media to scale up their outreach programmes.
Hundreds of small and medium-scale farmer organisations sprung up across the country. Using digital media, they created organisational infrastructure and inducted into the movement a mixed bag of leaders who are “insiders” — those entirely based in rural areas — and “outsiders” — those with connections with urban areas. This combination has facilitated the organisation of protests in cities as well as in rural areas.
The many large-scale farmers’ protests organised in Delhi and other places are a testament to the role played by farmer leaders and organisations in making the fragmented and localised movement truly national.
Building a national–level coalition
Within a few days of the Mandsaur incident in 2017, around 70-80 organisations from all over India formed a national coalition, All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), which has now grown to represent 250 organisations from 20 states. These organisations represent small, medium, and big farmers as well as farm labourers. The fact that such a coalition emerged and has sustained for so long despite differences in identities, interests and ideologies is extraordinary.
The AIKSCC represents a new form of farmers’ politics in India. In addition to organising protests, it has also adopted legislative advocacy as a tactic. In 2017, the AIKSCC drafted two bills to be presented in Parliament. These “Kisan Mukti Bills” represent a coherent policy agenda based on two long-standing demands of farmers: freedom from debt, and fair remuneration of their produce.
The AIKSCC obtained the support of 21 political parties (except the BJP) before tabling them as private member bills in the Lok Sabha in 2018. Although the early adjournment of the House disrupted this opportunity, the farmer organisations have since rallied around this agenda.
As farmers brought their agenda from the streets to Parliament with the backing of opposition parties, the Modi government had no choice but to visibly reclaim its ownership of the farmers’ issue. The farm bills hurriedly passed by the BJP side-stepped the agenda put forth by the farmers.
The bills facilitate selling outside of local mandis across districts and states and promote contract farming, neither of which has anything to do with alleviating the debt burden on farmers. And, the bills are unlikely to have an impact on farmers’ income in the near future.
To farmers, these bills at best provide an uncertain promise in the distant future, and at worst, are empty tokens that mock their efforts. It is then not surprising that these bills have received serious opposition from farmer organisations.
Going forward, any reform that does not align with the agenda set by the farmers’ movement is likely to face similar challenges. Farmers’ politics has arrived through a national-level social movement, and political parties may have to rethink their strategy around issues and agendas.
The author is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to reflect changes.