Bharat Bhushan: How farm protests may change political equations and hurt BJP in key states
The number and size of protest meetings or Mahapanchayats across villages of North India against the government’s obduracy on farm laws recalls the crisis faced by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2011. Six years into power, and with just about three years to go till the next general elections, its credibility was so eroded by Anna Hazare’s agitation against corruption that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found it very difficult to govern for his remaining term.
This was despite its dialogic and conciliatory approach to the Anna Hazare-led movement. Four of its senior ministers, led by then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, received maverick yoga guru Ramdev at Delhi airport to persuade him against joining a fast unto death on the issue. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited Ramdev “welcoming his constructive suggestions to improve governance” and emphasised that the government was “eager to work with you and members of civil society towards building a just and prosperous India”. Protest sites were not barricaded, no trenches dug, nor nails cemented into the roads. Far from dubbing its critics as anti-national, the Opposition leaders were kept constantly engaged.
The Modi government on the contrary never let up its smear campaign against the farmers even as it opened a dialogue holding 11 unproductive rounds of talks. Party officials and government functionaries alleged that anti-national forces had infiltrated the movement, Khalistani separatists in particular. By the time the government offered to suspend the laws for 18 months, there were no takers for it. After the unfortunate events of January 26 at the Red Fort, farmers’ protests have revived while the government has literally barricaded itself in Delhi.
Recognising that the stand-off will be long, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader from Uttar Pradesh, Rakesh Tikait, has evolved a formula for an extended protest – 15 people-10 days-one tractor. Every village in Western UP has been directed to stay at the protest site for 10 days before the next batch replaces the present lot. This would allow farmers to both protest and tend to their fields. Tikait boasted: “Then, even if the movement runs for 70 years, there is no problem.”
Should the protests last for even 7 months, it would be bad for the government. It will become even more of an international spectacle than it already has. More importantly, by being inflexible, the government will have run out of options. India would no longer be a shining example of democracy but a country hurtling towards increasing authoritarianism.
Inflexibility towards the farmers’ demands will leave it few options other than the use of force to disband the protests. Its incompetence in dealing with peaceful protests would only be underlined. It could also have adverse consequences for the morale of the security and armed forces that are populated by farmers’ children. And attempts to project the protests as merely centred on the one state of Punjab has the potential to resuscitate the separatist sentiment so far surviving on ventilator support by anti-India elements in Europe, North America and Pakistan. And finally, the longer the protests persist, the more likely it will be that new political equations will emerge to challenge the hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
Since Chaudhary Charan Singh, Rakesh Tikait is the first Jat leader from Western UP to cross the Yamuna. Charan Singh had to eventually accept the rise of Devi Lal as a Jat leader in Haryana. By inviting Tikait to address them in the Mahapanchayat at Jind on February 3, the Haryana Jats have cemented his image as a Jat leader acceptable across North India.
As Jats in Haryana move away from any party collaborating with the BJP government in the state, new possibilities open up for anti-BJP parties. Tikait himself has no party or political organisational structure of his own. Just as the BJP gained most from the Anna Hazare agitation so too the most organised and strategically agile party will gain from the farmers’ movement. The bestowing of “Kisan Kesri Samman” by a farmers’ Mahapanchayat on Abhay Chautala after he resigned from the State Legislative Assembly in their support, may indicate favourable winds blowing in favour of his party, the Indian National Lok Dal.
In UP, too, new political equations will surface making it difficult for the BJP to repeat its 2017 electoral victory in the state legislative Assembly in 2022. Already the Jats are publicly contrite for abandoning the legatees of Chaudhary Charan Singh and have thrown a bait to his grandson Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) by inviting him to address their Mahapanchayats. The RLD may regain ground and form new alliances in UP for the 2022 Assembly elections and deliver Western UP to a non-BJP formation. To Charan Singh’s AJGAR (Ahir, Jat, Gurjar, and Rajput) alliance, which broke the monopoly of the Congress, the present farmers’ protests may add Jat Muslims and Dalits, making it even more potent as a political force. As Brahmins in UP are already upset with the perceived pro-Rajput stance of Chief Minister Adityanath, the party may be left with the support only of the trading community.
There is a real possibility that the BJP could face very difficult political problems both in Haryana and UP. In Punjab, the party has already lost its crucial ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal. It is difficult to say whether the fallout of the farmers’ agitation will lead to the unravelling of the BJP in the other cow-belt states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which are electorally crucial for the party.
All these scenarios can become redundant if Prime Minister Modi were to surprise the farmers by changing course. But as of now the government seems to be suffering from a siege mentality. Pictures of barricades on Delhi’s borders and nails grouted onto highways have eroded the image of the Narendra Modi government both at home and abroad. As of now, PM Modi seems to have lost his first two-front war – a propaganda war in the Twittersphere as well as the one on Delhi’s borders.
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