Not BJP or Congress, farmers are setting their own agenda for 2019 elections.
Has the farmers’ movement finally arrived at the centre stage of national politics in India? And, can 2019 be the first Lok Sabha election to be fought mainly on farmers’ issues?
I asked myself these questions sitting at the stage of Kisan Mukti March at the Parliament Street last week. Tens of thousands of farmers from all over the country had gathered under the banner of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), an umbrella forum of over 200 farmers’ organisations. For once, a farmers’ rally was not reported as a traffic nuisance or a law and order issue. Many opposition bigwigs were in attendance in the afternoon session meant for political parties. All this encouraged me to ask these questions, something I wouldn’t have done a few months ago.
The last time farmers occupied centre stage in national politics was almost exactly three decades ago, October-November 1988. Chaudhary Mahendra Singh Tikait had descended in Delhi with well over one lakh farmers, mostly from western Uttar Pradesh. His Bharatiya Kisan Union laid siege to the Boat Club, Rajpath, and with it the seat of national power for one whole week. The farmers occupied the national centre stage for a little while before being displaced by Bofors as the major issue for 1989 elections.
Last Saturday’s rally was not as gigantic as Tikait’s but was big enough to draw national attention. More than that, it had all the elements to put farmers at the centre stage of national politics: farmers from all major states of the country responded to the call by the AIKSCC. A never-before coalition of big landowners, small and marginal peasants, agricultural labour, adivasi and women farmers were present at this gathering.
More than 200 farmers’ organisations representing all politico-ideological strands were represented on the stage. Legatees of Tikait’s BKU were there in green along with Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana and M.D. Nanjundaswamy’s Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangh to representing better-off landed farmers. They were joined by Left-affiliated kisan sabhas (All India Kisan Sabha, All India Kisan Mahasabha, All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha and many Left organisations from Punjab) representing small peasants and farm labour, all in red flags.
The third shade, mostly blue or white, was provided by proponents of ecological agriculture (National Alliance of People’s Movement, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, Rythu Swarajya Vedika). And the rainbow was completed by many new national and regional movements (Jai Kisan Andolan of Swaraj Abhiyan in yellow, Lok Sangharsh Morcha from Maharashtra, Gandhi Grameen Manch from Uttar Pradesh, Terai Kisan Union from Uttarakhand, to name a few). Farmers have learnt the first lesson of collective action: unity is strength.
They have also learnt something else. For the first time, farmers’ movement was not simply complaining, it was offering a clear solution. For the first time, farmers’ movement had narrowed down its charter of demands to just two operational points: remunerative prices and freedom from debt. For the first time, farmers’ movement had drafted two pieces of legislation, got the political parties to vet it and had these tabled in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha as private member bills. While media continued to caricature their demands, these two bills show policy sophistication rarely witnessed in farmers’ politics. Farmers are learning the rules of the game in a parliamentary democracy.
Besides, farmers are learning to make friends with the city. It began with the long march in Mumbai when the metro opened its heart and purse for the farmers. This time Nation for Farmers, a solidarity group of conscientious city dwellers led by the redoubtable P. Sainath, created a positive buzz for the farmers. They used new social media, twitterstorm and all, to spread the message. Gone are the days of pitting Bharat against India. Farmers actually distributed pamphlets apologising to the public for any inconvenience caused by their march, while explaining their demands to the urban audience. Farmers are reading Dale Carnegie.
Finally, this event represented one of the rare moments when farmers could dictate their terms to political parties. Let’s not be deceived by the front page picture of opposition leaders holding hands at the farmers’ stage. It didn’t represent farmers’ movements joining the anti-BJP mahagathbandhan.
Yes, there was an unmistakable anger against the anti-farmer record of the Narendra Modi government. But farmers had not forgotten the anti-farmer track record of the past and present governments led by the Congress and other parties that came to pledge support to their cause. They remember that most of these parties were missing during farmers’ protest for the last four years. They fully understand the electoral compulsion that brought them all to this huge gathering of farmers. Yet the AIKSCC had extended invitation to all the parties on the condition that the party must support the two AIKSCC bills in Parliament and, if these are not passed, pledge to support these in their election manifesto. For a change, the terms of engagement between political parties and farmers were not dictated by the big parties but by the farmer organisations. Farmers are learning politics.
So, has the farmers’ movement finally arrived at the political centre stage? Do we expect, for once, a national election to be fought on the issue of agrarian distress? Can we, at last, look forward to some concrete action on the distress facing farm, farming and rural economy?
Yes. Maybe. Not quite.
That’s how I would answer these three questions right now. Farmers are not the only player at the national centre stage (they needn’t be), but they are certainly there. Now on, the government, the opposition and the opinion-makers cannot but take note of the farmers’ presence. If the leadership of the farmers’ movement does not squander this opportunity like their predecessors did three decades ago, they can set the political agenda for some time to come.
If they do so, 2019 could well be the first Lok Sabha election to be fought mainly on the farmers’ issues. This possibility is stronger if the BJP loses Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh besides, of course, Rajasthan. Or, even if the BJP scrapes through overall, but faces major reversal in rural seats of the Hindi belt. This would not go uncontested. The BJP would try desperately to divert the focus from jawan-kisan to Hindu-Mussalman. It all depends on how this battle of agenda setting pans out.
Salience of farmers’ issues would mean more farmer-friendly talk, more manifesto promises and some sops. But it would be premature to expect a major policy shift or a sustained political will in favour of the farmers. Their struggle has a long way to go. They are up against not just a hostile regime, but the tide of history. Farmers’ movement has learnt a lot. It needs to learn lot more.
The author is one of the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan, farmer wing of Swaraj Abhiyan, a constituent of AIKSCC
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