Farmers' political ambitions in Punjab trump reality

Farmers' political ambitions in Punjab trump reality

Failure of farm unions at the hustings would have disastrous consequences for the struggle for universal MSP

Under the stewardship of Balbir Singh Rajewal (Centre), farmers have decided to form a political front, the Samyukt Samaj Morcha. Credit: AFP Photo

The decision of 22 farm unions in Punjab to form a political party and contest elections is a big gamble. Under the stewardship of Balbir Singh Rajewal, they have decided to form a political front, the Samyukt Samaj Morcha, to contest all the 117 legislative assembly seats in the state. Rajewal leads his own faction of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) - the BKU (Rajewal). He has flirted in the past with the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Congress party and the Aam Adami Party. Another leader from Haryana BKU, Gurnam Singh Chaduni, has also floated a political party, the Sanyukt Sangharsh Party, to contest the Punjab polls.

Chaduni's aim is "to purify politics and bring good people forward." He claimed that his party would work for the welfare of all sections of the society while existing political parties frame policies in favour of capitalists and ignore the poor. While these are laudable objectives, two important questions must be considered: Will these parties be able to ensure the effective participation of the farmers in governance? And, what would be the impact of a poll defeat on the farmers' movement?

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The farmers' mass mobilisation was largely focused on a single class ("farmers") with a single issue (remunerative prices) rather than on a wider social agenda. On the other hand, a political party has to address a broader cross-section of society. Therefore, when the farmers' unions, either singly or together, transform themselves into a political party, they will need to widen their agenda - evidence for which is so far wanting.

Moreover, the strength and success of the 15 month long farmers' movement cannot just be attributed to the farmers' union leaders alone. It was also due to the support they received from civil society organisations, political parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, gurudwaras who helped run free community kitchens and NGOs and volunteers from different sections of society. The strength of the farmers' movement was the combined energy and leadership shown by all of them and not of the farmers' leaders alone.

The political parties that spoke out in favour of repealing the farm laws are no longer backing a new political formation of farmers in Punjab. They will, in fact, field their own candidates. Most importantly, to win elections, it is not sufficient to have good campaigners and canvassers – election management on the ground is essential. Only parties with structures on the ground, extending to the booth level, can convert intentions into votes cast. Unless there is massive public anger against the government (such as in the aftermath of the Emergency), traditional political parties have a clear advantage over newer political formations in this regard.

Also Read — From protests to politics: Key figures of the farmers' agitation set to enter fray in Punjab

Moreover, the farmers' movement is divided on the issue of direct political participation. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the common front of the farmers' unions which led the agitation against the three farm laws (now repealed), has distanced itself from those contesting the polls. Two of the largest farmer unions, Joginder Singh Ugrahan's BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan) and Jagjit Singh Dallewal-led BKU (Unity-Sidhupur), are also firmly opposed to poll participation. As opposed to those who want a direct role in policymaking, these groups want to continue as a pressure group to influence politics and policies.

This dilemma is not new. The experience of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) of MD Nanjundaswamy and the Shetkari Sangathana of Sharad Joshi is something that today's farmers' leaders could learn from. Both subscribed to transformative agendas and were focused on remunerative prices for farm produce. The KRRS and the Shetkari Sangathana, however, were ideologically different.

Nanjundaswamy stood up to the government's new economic policy/liberalisation and against the World Trade Organization (WTO) (as envisaged in the Dunkel Draft at that stage) and multinationals in the seed sector (Monsanto, in particular). He demanded not only remunerative prices but also an increase in loan grants, distribution of government land, reducing water levy, price policy based on man-hours, declaring agriculture an industry, reservation for farmers' children and free houses, education and healthcare for farm labour. Sharad Joshi's, on the other hand, was a more avowedly right-wing formation modelled on the Swatantra Party. Their entry into politics, however, turned their powerful grassroots organisations into virtual non-entities.

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It cannot be anyone's case that successful social movements should not institutionalise themselves by moving from the domain of civil society to politics. However, if mass mobilisation for a specific agenda does not morph into mass electoral support, the costs to the organisations can be high. Failure to demonstrate public support at the hustings would have disastrous consequences for the ongoing struggle for universal MSP (minimum support price). It would allow the government to say that it proved its claim that the agitation only represented "sectional interests". Remember, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even when repealing the farm laws, underlined that only "some farmers" had not been convinced of their usefulness. The government would be able to claim that the farmers' unions never had mass support, and their leaders would be discredited.

This turn of events may embolden the government to bring in its agricultural reforms in a different guise. After all, Union Minister for Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar has said that the government had only "moved one step back" and "will move forward again". Even though he has clarified that he did not mean bringing back the controversial laws, he has not said what he really meant.

The government's position on MSP is also bound to harden. And should the farmers' unions decide to agitate again, they would no longer be handled with kid gloves. They would meet the full vengeance of a state that has not still recovered from its display of weakness in repealing the farm laws.

(The writer is a journalist based in Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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