Farmers' agitation

Popular resentment against the BJP-led Centre rises as ongoing farmers' agitation spreads, shows effects in Punjab local body elections

Print edition : March 12, 2021

Passengers from Gujarat perform a garba dance in solidarity with the farmers’ agitation, after their train was halted at Jalandhar Railway Station during a four-hour rail roko protest on February 18. Photo: PTI

Home Minister Amit Shah. Photo: PTI

Sikkim Nain of the Bharatiya Kisan Union addressing the media during a protest in Jind, Haryana, on January 11. Photo: Youtube Screengrab

Capt. Amarinder Singh , Chief Minister of Punjab. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Congress candidate Baljinder Kaur Rinki celebrates her win in the municipal election, in Patiala district on February 17. Photo: PTI

The spread of the farmers’ agitation to many parts of northern India, the traction it gets from other sections of society and the decimation of the BJP and the Akali Dal in the Punjab local body elections, seen as a reflection of mounting popular resentment, have rattled the BJP and its government.

When the Budget session oF Parliament went into recess on February 15, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost no time in initiating a series of political assessment processes. Central to its deliberations was the nearly-three-month-old farmers’ agitation against the three controversial farm laws enacted by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and its political impact in different parts of the country, especially the northern States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Certain other developments, including Frontline magazine’s substantive revelations on the criminal and callous indifference shown by the security machinery in Jammu and Kashmir to concrete intelligence inputs ahead of the dastardly terror attack at Pulwama in February 2019, also were also discussed in this stock-tacking exercise.

The assessment was that the party and the Narendra Modi government would face a stronger opposition raising tough, multifaceted questions when the Budget session resumes on March 8.

A senior BJP leader from western Uttar Pradesh, who was part of the deliberations, told Frontline: “The issues raised by the new revelations on Pulwama, especially those concerning internal security matters, a consistent mainstay of the BJP throughout its political existence, may lead to some tumultuous exchanges in Parliament. That could also add to the intensity of the farmers’ agitation outside.”

Indifferent leadership

Notwithstanding such admissions in private, the leaders of the government, the BJP and the other constituents of the Sangh Parivar have responded to Frontline’s revelations with calculated indifference and uncharacteristic silence in public. In doing so, the Modi government seems to have taken a leaf out of the book of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s style of governance.

Narasimha Rao’s tenure as Prime Minister in the 1991-96 period was marked by a studied indifference in the face of pressing and even volatile situations, including the violent Ayodhya Ram temple agitations launched by the Sangh Parivar. This absence of a proactive approach was one of the factors that led up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva kar sevaks on December 6, 1992. Later, Frontline had reported that Narasimha Rao’s supreme inaction reached a point where he was able to take a nap even after hearing the news of the demolition from two of his ministerial colleagues. This report about his apparent nonchalance also did not evoke any response from his regime.

The Modi government has adopted a similar posture publicly, although it is learnt that discussions on Frontline’s revelations happen from time to time internally.

On the whole, the single most important point of discussion in the BJP’s internal deliberations was that political and social challenges were steadily mounting for the BJP in significant parts of the country. Participants highlighted the fact that the farmers’ agitation which was confined to Punjab and Haryana initially was rapidly spreading to other States, including Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Another important point that was flagged in some of these meetings was that large sections of the public had started raising pointed questions on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership qualities and his commitment to the poor and needy.

The first major meeting in the series was held in Delhi under the leadership of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar, BJP president J.P. Nadda, and B.L. Santhosh, BJP general secretary (organisation), on February 16, a day after Parliament broke for recess.

The leaders summoned the BJP’s parliamentarians and legislators from Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and a few districts of Rajasthan. The unanimous feedback from the MPs and MLAs from these four States was that the farmers’ agitation was getting more and more traction with each passing day and that it was causing major operational and organisational problems for the party.
Also read: BJP's campaign against the farmers' agitation

Several MPs and MLAs also pointed out that the agitation had acquired an intensely emotive character, which was attracting women and youth in large numbers. Many MLAs apparently requested the government to do more to mollify the farmers, adding that merely holding multiple rounds of talks with the farmers was not enough.

The response from the leadership, especially Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda, was to urge the people’s elected representatives to once again go down to the grass roots and proactively reach out to farmers in their respective areas. They reportedly directed party activists from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh to specifically focus on the Jat community, which forms a sizable component of the entire farming community in these regions.

Apparently, the meeting also framed broad guidelines for the ‘reach-out’ plans targeting community khaps, panchayats and organisations representing different social groups in these areas. The brief was to clearly explain the party’s and government’s position on the farm laws, and make it clear to the agitators that they were not anti-farmer.

Amit Shah reportedly said that the agitation was an ideological war against the government.

A few MPs and MLAs from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh who participated in the meeting told Frontline that they were still “in the process of formulating the reach-out programmes”. However, many grass-roots activists of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar across several districts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh told Frontline that the MPs and MLAs were finding it extremely difficult to even chalk out the basic plans and outlines of the “reach-out programmes”.

A grass-roots level BJP worker from Rohtak in Haryana said: “Workers and leaders of the BJP and its ally, the JJP [Jannayak Janta Party], are getting increasingly ostracised at the social level by the rural communities as a whole. So much so that they are not being invited for weddings or allowed into the houses even to condole deaths. What reach-out is possible in such a situation?”

BJP’s rout in Punjab

The general mood of dissent became evident in the Punjab local body elections held on February 14, whose results were announced on February 17. Scoring a landslide victory against the BJP and the State’s principal opposition party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the ruling Congress won seven municipal corporations and emerged as the largest party in the eighth. It also bagged most of the 109 municipal council and nagar panchayats and won in as many as 1,399 of the 2,165 municipal wards. The results were a certainly big boost for Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, with the local body elections seen as the “semi-finals” for the Assembly election due early next year. Amarinder Singh promptly characterised the victory as one registered against the BJP and SAD by the farmers of Punjab for trampling upon their rights and livelihood.

A closer look at the voting patterns in the local body elections showed that many segments of the population that traditionally supported the BJP and the SAD have deserted these parties. The BJP’s defeat in its traditional strongholds such as Pathankot and Batala indicates that the dominant trader community, considered to be the BJP’s traditional vote bank, has moved away from the party.
Also read: Government running out of options in the face of the farmers' agitation

Colonel (retd.) Baljeet Singh Dhariwal, a political observer based in Moga district, said that the local body elections this time were essentially a referendum on the controversial farm laws and that all sections of the population cutting across caste, community and class barriers had rallied against them.

He told Frontline: “As the rage against the farm laws swept across the State, the Congress was chosen as the instrument which could send a message to the hubris of the BJP and the vacillations of the SAD. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was able to make the right kind of tactical electoral manoeuvres on the strength of his long experience. This too helped the Congress make gains.”

Women’s anger

A four-hour rail roko (train blockade) protest organised nationwide, even as the last of the civic body results from Punjab were coming in from the town of Mohali, also underscored the growing public alienation of the BJP and its governments. In the three regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, considered to be the epicentre of the agitation, the day’s programmes were overwhelmingly led by women and youth. Social and political observers said that the massive participation of women in the agitation in several places in Haryana was a “big social change” for a State known for its patriarchal social set-up. The participation of women was especially impressive in the districts of Jind, Sonipat, Sirsa and Fatehabad in Haryana as well as in Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Hoshiarpur in Punjab.

The rail roko agitation saw several episodes that reflected the fighting spirit of the rural farming communities and the positive resonances the agitation was creating in other segments of society. A case in point was Barsola village in Jind, where more than a thousand women from neighbouring villages reached the railway tracks in tractor-trolleys and blocked trains. The protest was led by Krishna Devi, a 70-year woman from Barsola. Sikkim Nain, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s women wing in Jind, told mediapersons: “Women are joining men at every front. We will keep participating in the agitation until the three laws are repealed. The khap panchayats that earlier used to keep women in the back row, now want them to take the front seat. With this agitation, the women too will get freedom from certain customs like the purdah system.”

Local mediapersons who had gone to the Jalandhar railway station to cover the rail roko protest said that they had witnessed unique scenes of camaraderie at the venue. When an Ahmedabad-Jammu train was stopped the passengers did not raise any objection. One of the reporters told Frontline: “A big group of women from Gujarat even alighted and started performing the garba dance on the platform in support of farmers, much to everyone’s enjoyment. They told mediapersons that although they had no farming background they supported the farmers and did not mind waiting a few hours for the sake of the farmers who had been on the roads for three months.”

BJP and Sangh Parivar activists hailing from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh said that the overwhelming response to the rail roko protest had certainly pricked the confidence of some leaders of the BJP and its allies like the JJP, who mistakenly believed that the agitation would fizzle out in due course.

New agitation plans

In the meantime, farmers from different parts of the country are working on new ways and means to strengthen the agitation. According to reports from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of villages in those areas have held gram sabhas and decided that at any point of time in the next six months there would be 10-15 volunteers from each village at the agitation venues on the borders of Delhi.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of farmers’ unions that is spearheading the agitation, has planned a number of mahapanchayats in several States in the west and the south, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Right from the early stages of the farmers’ agitation, the BJP and the Modi government attempted to belittle its reach and impact, but the developments after February 15 seem to have rattled sizable sections of the party, especially those members who have to constantly interact with people at the grass-roots level. Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar even said in Parliament that the agitation was confined to one State. The senior BJP leader from western Uttar Pradesh who spoke to Frontline pointed out that such statements and the underestimation of the real import of the farmers’ struggle showed the overconfidence of the party and the leaders.
Also read: Skirmishes with the police mar an otherwise peaceful kisan parade

He said: “At one stage, our leadership was of the view that at worst, the electoral impact of the farmers’ struggle would be confined to two and a quarter States, meaning Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Collectively, they account for less than 50 Lok Sabha seats and the understanding was that a big party like the BJP can afford to give up that many seats. But such overconfidence is a thing of the past, at least for people like us, who need to constantly be in touch with the people for one thing or the other. There is little doubt that the farmers’ agitation and the demands raised by them are getting greater traction and that we need to deal them with greater seriousness.”

Sangh Parivar insiders told Frontline that such assessments and consequent expressions and observations within different Hindutva organisational forums led to the initiation of informal talks with farmers’ unions and leaders including Rakesh Tikait, who has emerged as the most important leader of the agitation in western Uttar Pradesh.

During these discussions, the leaders representing the government side made offers including freezing the implementation of laws for three years, practically until 2024, and enhancing procurement of grains by the government to one and a half times more than the current level. The farmers’ leaders had reportedly sought the non-implementation of the controversial farm laws at least until December 2024.

At the time of filing this report, the informal negotiations were still on and they were expected to lead to formal talks between the unions and the government in the last week of February.