How agrarian anger powered the INDIA bloc juggernaut and gave BJP a major setback

In States that were the site of farmer protests, the BJP suffered major losses, despite its government making many overtures to the peasant community.

Published : Jun 24, 2024 21:34 IST - 11 MINS READ

Farmer leaders protest the three contentious farm laws at the Delhi-Haryana border on December 14, 2020.

Farmer leaders protest the three contentious farm laws at the Delhi-Haryana border on December 14, 2020. | Photo Credit: MANISH SWARUP/AP

In the first week of June, Kangana Ranaut, actor and MP-elect from Mandi constituency, Himachal Pradesh, made news for entirely non-film-related reasons. Ranaut was slapped by a female Central Industrial Security Force constable at the Chandigarh airport for “belittling” women peasants during the farmers’ protests against the three contentious farm laws in 2020-21. The constable’s mother, it transpired, had participated in the protests. The errant constable was suspended and an inquiry instituted against her. Although the incident was duly condemned, the constable’s expression of anger, related as it was to the “treatment of farmers” by the government and its apologists, became an interesting point of discussion.

The role of the recent farmer and peasant struggles in shaping the outcome of the results in the 18th Lok Sabha election cannot be emphasised enough. The electoral setback to the BJP was particularly felt in States where agrarian movements and peasant struggles took place, be it Haryana, Punjab, parts of western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra.

The principal beneficiaries were the constituents of the INDIA bloc. In States where the Congress shared the opposition space with its allies, it made electoral gains. Since the Congress was seen as leading the INDIA bloc, it became the principal beneficiary in some States. This came about despite the Central government withdrawing the three farm laws in 2021 and making overtures to the peasant community through multifarious kisan schemes.

Outstanding issues

While MSP legalisation, the implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission recommendations, and the shoddy treatment of the farmers’ protest (including the most recent round in February 2024) were the larger issues, there were also region-specific issues such as the export ban on onions in Maharashtra that led to a fall in its wholesale price, and the pending dues of sugarcane farmers in western Uttar Pradesh.

Also Read | Farmers’ protest: It’s a battle against servitude

Frontline spoke to a cross-section of farmer leaders and social scientists to understand the impact of the farmer protests on the electoral outcome, particularly in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra.

In Maharashtra, onions dominated the discourse in rural segments of constituencies like Nashik, Dindori, Pune, Ahmednagar, Dhule, Baramati, and Shirur. INDIA bloc candidates won in Nashik, Dindori, and Dhule. Ashok Dhawale, president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said that onion farmers were “hopping mad” when the government banned exports in December 2023. In March 2023, the AIKS took out a “long march”, the third of its kind since 2017, from Nashik to Mumbai, exclusively on the onion issue. The Eknath Shinde-led government had to give a subsidy of Rs.300 a quintal as part of the settlement. It lifted the export ban in May 2024 but the conditions of export duty and minimum export price made it difficult for Indian onions to compete in the international market. On May 15, onion farmers “raised a ruckus” during one of Modi’s public rallies in Dindori constituency of Nashik district.

An onion farmer in Nashik. The ban on the export of onions, which led to a fall in its wholesale price, dominated the election discourse in Maharashtra.

An onion farmer in Nashik. The ban on the export of onions, which led to a fall in its wholesale price, dominated the election discourse in Maharashtra. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The NDA candidate from Ahmednagar, Sujay Vikhe-Patil, was defeated by an unknown candidate of the NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar), Nilesh Dnyandev Lanke. Sujay Vikhe-Patil’s father Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil is a Minister in the State government and his grandfather Vitthal Rao Vikhe-Patil is credited with launching the cooperative movement. The Shirdi (reserved) seat, also in the onion belt, was won by the Shiv Sena (UBT).

Dhawale explained: “Even if there are burning issues, they only get expression in political-electoral terms if there is mobilisation and struggle around those issues.” He added that even though the AIKS had initiated the protests for fair onion prices, there were other groups, too, that threw their weight behind the issue.

Soya bean and cotton issues loomed large in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, known as the “graveyard of farmers”. Dhawale said that according to a petition taken up by the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court, 1,439 farmers from Vidarbha and 1,088 farmers from Marathwada died by suicide in 2023. In the Marathwada belt, NDA candidates lost in all segments except Aurangabad. The reservation issue for Marathas was felt more keenly here even though its impact resonated across the State.

“In Maharashtra, the export ban on onions dominated the discourse in rural segments of constituencies like Nashik, Dindori, Pune, Ahmednagar, Dhule, Baramati, and Shirur. ”

In the Vidarbha region, the NDA won only 3 of 10 seats. One of them was Nagpur, won by Nitin Gadkari. The BJP lost the adjoining Ramtek seat (rural Nagpur). Dhawale said the NDA won the Akola and Buldhana seats only because Prakash Ambedkar and his party, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, played spoiler. In Buldhana, Ravikant Tupkar, the candidate propped by Raju Shetti, prominent farmer leader and president of the Swabhimani Paksha, came third but secured a good number of votes. Dhawale said Tupkar had led militant struggles on soya bean prices in the region. “That is why, electorally, he was able to get that many votes,” he explained. Raju Shetti was himself relegated to third place in the Hatkanangale seat in Kolhapur district.

In western Maharashtra (Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara, Pune), sugarcane and dairy farmers felt they had been shortchanged by the Centre, thanks to the ban on ethanol production and the ban on sugar exports. Milk rates have been dropping steadily and farmers in Maharashtra are being paid much less than their counterparts in Gujarat. Dhawale was of the opinion that the State government could well have intervened in favour of dairy famers since milk was a local issue.

  • The farmers’ protests of 2020-21 significantly influenced the outcome of India’s 18th Lok Sabha election, leading to BJP’s electoral setbacks and gains for the INDIA bloc in states like Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and parts of Uttar Pradesh.
  • Region-specific issues, such as the export ban on onions in Maharashtra, sugarcane prices in western Uttar Pradesh, and farmer suicides in Vidarbha and Marathwada regions, played a crucial role in shaping voting patterns, with farmers rallying behind candidates who supported their cause during the protests.
  • Despite the Modi government’s attempts to appease farmers through schemes like the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, farmers maintain that these measures do not address their core demands for a legal framework for MSP, fair crop prices, and assured procurement, which could lead to further agrarian unrest if left unresolved.

‘Anyone but the BJP’

In Punjab, where the BJP was completely wiped out, the Congress reaped the benefits of the peasant protests. Farmer representatives told Frontline that the community was clear that they would vote for the Congress since it was leading the INDIA bloc from the front. Baljeet Grewal, general secretary of the Punjab Kisan Sabha, explained that the vote share of the BJP remained more or less the same as in the last election. While the party’s independent vote share was never apparent as it had always contested with the Shiromani Akali Dal, in Ludhiana it saw a bump in its vote share owing to the large migrant population from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Rural support for the BJP was almost nil, as the people saw it as a party hostile to farmers.

“The impact of the farmers’ agitation was felt all over the State. However, districts like Ludhiana have become highly commercialised with little dependence on agriculture. The support for the BJP comes from that segment,” said Grewal. “Around Ludhiana it is totally different. The same goes for Jalandhar district. A good majority of the landed people here live abroad. The land is tilled by tenant farmers. So the owners do not really have a stake in the Centre’s farm policies. But the belt from Patiala onwards and moving towards Sangrur and Fazilka is entirely dependent on agriculture.”

Farmers raise slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a protest to demand minimum crop prices at Gurdaspur, Punjab on May 24.

Farmers raise slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a protest to demand minimum crop prices at Gurdaspur, Punjab on May 24. | Photo Credit: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Giving an example of the impact of the farmers’ struggle in this election, Grewal said that Amritpal Singh, who won the Khadoor Sahib seat as an Independent, had tried to “hijack” the farmers’ movement in 2020-21. Adding that it was the Congress that ultimately managed to reap the benefits of the farmers’ anger, Grewal stated that the decline of the fortunes of the Shiromani Akali Dal was because of the party’s ambivalence towards the kisan andolan. Of the 13 seats in Punjab, the BJP ranked third in 6, came second in 3, fourth in 2, and a poor fifth in the 2 seats won by Independents.

In Haryana, the farmers’ movement and agrarian issues resonated across the State except southern Haryana where the BJP has pockets of influence among the Ahir community, the second largest after the Jats. Mahabir Jaglan, former professor of geography from Kurukshetra University, said the catchment areas of the farmer protests were initially confined to the north-eastern parts of the State. The farmers here were concerned about the dismantling of the mandis and the system of procurement. When it intensified, the agitation spread to the northern, central, and western tracts of the State. In southern Haryana, barring the Palwal and Mewat regions, the movement did not have much impact.

In areas where farmers participated in large numbers in the protests, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) prevailed on the Congress to nominate candidates who had supported the movement. Jaglan told Frontline: “The Congress fielded only two members from the Jat community this time, from Rohtak and Hisar. More than caste identity, people were particular that candidates who supported the protests be fielded.”

The Bhiwani-Mahendargarh seat is a case in point. The constituency has a mix of Jat, Ahir, and Yadav votes. The Congress candidate, Rao Dan Singh, who is the sitting MLA and belongs to the Ahir community, trailed in the Ahirwal dominated segments of the Lok Sabha constituency. Interestingly, the BJP candidate, who hails from the Jat community, trailed in the Jat-dominated segments but secured the votes of the Ahirs and the Yadavs, both OBCs who did not support the farmer protests. Both communities influenced the outcome in Gurugram and Bhiwani-Mahendargarh, both of which the BJP won.

Explaining why Jats rallied behind candidates who supported peasant issues, Jaglan said: “I visited my village in Bhiwani district and asked a section of Jats whom they would prefer as their candidate. They were emphatically against Shruti Choudhry, a Jat herself, as she had not supported the farmers during the agitation.” Choudhry is an ex-MP from Bhiwani-Mahendargarh to whom the Congress denied the ticket. On June 18, she, along with her mother Kiran Choudhry, a four-time Congress MLA, defected to the BJP.

There were instances of farmer leaders indirectly ensuring the victory of BJP candidates. In Kurukshetra, Gurnam Singh Charuni, a member of the SKM, nurtured ambitions of contesting himself. When that did not happen, he threw a spanner in the prospects of the AAP candidate by declaring the SKM’s support to Abhay Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal. Though Chautala did not win the seat, the Jat votes were divided and the INDIA bloc candidate, a non-Jat, lost.

Different story in Uttar Pradesh

In Uttar Pradesh too, the peasant community participated in the 2020-21 farmer protests, although their concerns were dispersed and their participation not as intensive as that of farmers from Haryana and Punjab. Their concerns had more to do with sugarcane prices than with a legal framework for MSP. Also, the participation of Jats in the 2020-21 protest was confined to a few districts in western Uttar Pradesh like Meerut, Baghpat, and Muzaffarnagar. The peasant communities from Aligarh, Mathura, and Agra did not participate actively in the agitation. Notably, these seats went to the BJP.

Tear gas fired at protesting farmers during the Delhi Chalo march, at Shambhu near the Punjab-Haryana border on February 21, 2024.

Tear gas fired at protesting farmers during the Delhi Chalo march, at Shambhu near the Punjab-Haryana border on February 21, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

But the outcome was starkly different in Kairana, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Bijnor, Saharanpur, and Nagina, where non-BJP candidates were elected. It was argued that even though the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), an ally of the NDA, won two seats, the wins are for the RLD candidates themselves and cannot be interpreted as support for the Modi government.

Inderjit Singh, vice-president of the Haryana AIKS, said that the BJP heavyweight Sanjeev Balyan’s defeat in Muzaffarnagar, Chandrashekhar Azad’s victory in Nagina, and the complete rout of the BJP in eastern Rajasthan could be attributed largely to the peasants’ anger against the BJP.

Also Read | Workers, peasants rise again in protest to demand government benefits

Even though the agitation was perceived to have been led by Jats, the unexpected support it got in eastern Rajasthan from OBC groups such as the Gujjar and from Scheduled Tribe communities such as the Meena, proved crucial to the INDIA bloc. In Haryana, too, the Gujjar community, although numerically small, backed the parties of the INDIA bloc.

Realising that farmers were still unhappy with his government, one of the first files that Narendra Modi signed as soon as he took charge in his third time as Prime Minister was to sanction the release of funds for the 17th instalment of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi. Farmer representatives said that the annual fund of Rs.6,000 a family from this income support scheme would amount to the income from the sale of two or three quintals of grain. It will be a big factor only where subsistence agriculture is practised. The farmers pointed out that this support was no substitute for their demand for a legal framework for MSP, fair prices for all crops, and assured procurement.

At the moment, it does not seem as if the Modi government is serious about addressing agrarian issues, considering that it did not invite the SKM for the June 21 pre-Budget discussion with farmer associations and agriculture economists. The issue could take a different shape altogether in the coming months if the government continues to ignore substantive issues raised by the agricultural communities.

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