What does one do when a script is stuck between the Sarkar and farmers demand for repeal of three contentious laws? Both, operating across a wide chasm of belief and trust? Hold a razzmatazz Mahapanchayat to reignite protests. Precisely what Rakesh Takait did at UP’s Muzaffarnagar Sunday, farmers new karambhoomi.
Forgotten was the district’s ignominy of ugly Hindu-Muslim riots 2013 leaving over 60 dead. A watershed moment which saw BJP’s rise in the run-up to 2014 Lok Sabha elections and thereafter where it reaped massive political and electoral dividends, creating an aura of electoral invincibility.
At one level, the Centre and UP Sarkars have only themselves to blame for resurrecting Tikait’s career. In January Yogi’s Government’s mishandling of Tikait’s Bharatiya Kisan Union at Ghazipur and his effective use of ‘art of crying’ led to an outpouring of support, making him the new champion of food soldiers against Modi’s farm laws and turned a Sikh farmers-led movement into a Jat rebellion with the chutzpah to stand up to the Government.
By turning their back on a negotiated settlement against the three contentious laws and taking a maximalist position, the Government has made plain it refusal to back down. Its contention: reforms would free-up India’s troubled agricultural sector by giving farmers more choice of buyers for their produce and double incomes by 2022. Farmer claim the laws are a ploy to corporatise the sector and result in crony capitalism.
Clearly, a cat and mouse game between the Government and farmers on who blinks first. With the agitation entering its ninth month frustration seems to be building up among kisan ranks with some returning to their villages. With Assembly elections slated for early 2022, perhaps Tikait is muscle flexing and looking to tap into farmers’ anger by holding rallies and bandhs to wean away Jats from BJP alongside make himself relevant and be counted in the forthcoming poll. Notwithstanding, the Takait brothers rallied Jats behind the Hindutva Brigade last polls.
Western UP which primarily comprises Jats, Gujjars and Muslims accounts for 29 Lok Sabha and 136 Assembly seats out of 403. In the 2017 Assembly polls the BJP won 105 of the 136 seats. Of 29 Lok Sabha seats Mulayam’s Samajwadi and Mayawati’s BSP wrested only five from BJP in the region while Chaudhary’s RLD drew a blank.
Farmers claim the Mahapanchayat has doused communal tensions that helped BJP and has rekindled old Hindu-Muslim solidarity which threatens to weaken the Party’s political grip in the region and begin fresh political mobilisation against it ahead of 2022. As per 2011 Census, the total population of Western UP is 71,217,132 of which 72.29% is Hindu with Jats constituting 17% and 26.21% is Muslim.
Already, the Jat-centric RLD with strong roots in the region has tapped into farmers’ anger by unequivocally putting its weight behind the protests. The Party has allied with Samajwadi which is BJP’s main challenger in the upcoming elections.
However, the Hindutva Brigade does not seem unduly perturbed. Asserted a senior UP leader, “Among Jat farmers sentiment is mixed. While some attended the rally, many kept a cautious distance from the larger political messaging it sought to send out, not a few wondered if it would really benefit the Opposition.”
Added another Minister, “If Jats consolidate behind our rivals, it would push OBCs to rally behind us, which helps us. Also, we will involve our Jat leaders along-with social activists, spiritual gurus and those who have influence in Khaps, meet them, placate the community and convince them.”
Besides, both the Centre and State Governments have promised to increase the State-advised price for sugarcane, before November — the minimum rates that sugar mills must pay farmers. The State Government has also asked sugar mills to clear farmers pending dues, among other measures aimed at winning back their support.
Pertinently, in western UP anger over stagnant sugarcane prices was the key factor that led farmers to join protests last winter. If there is a substantial increase from Rs 315 per quintal of sugarcane farmers will support the BJP. A sentiment endorsed by Khap leaders who feel if Chief Minister Yogi walks his talk on promises, things would change. “We are not against the Government, we are only against some of its policies. If he does something good for farmers, people will support him,” said a Khap chief.
Countered another, “Last year, the State Government pressed charges against several farmers under the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Act over stubble-burning. Now, it says it would consider withdrawing those cases. They made that law, do they think we are stupid and will be conned?”
A Samajwadi leader dismisses these promises as political expediency. “There are too many issues. It is not just about sugarcane prices. What about electricity which is more expensive for farmers here than in Punjab and Haryana? For four years the Government broke farmers and tortured them mentally now no one is going to be taken in by their promises.”
In sharp contrast, in Punjab kisans agitation isn’t just a battle to seek repeal of the three legislations but is more deep-rooted and reflects a wider range of concerns about the emerging agrarian economy. Besides, securing a legal guarantee for Minimum Support Price, the battle is also to stop India’s rich capitalists from smuggling out farmers’ labour power without paying the cost.
Sans casteism it is rooted in the social base of everybody working on farms with dignity. A majority of Sikh farmers are Jats and more educated who are aware of political gimmicks like Modi rushing to a gurudwara and kneeling before the Guru Granth Sahib.
But the BJP is unperturbed. It is not a big political player in the State as the battle is between the Congress, Badals’ Akali and Kejriwal’s AAP. But that it does not cascade into a domino effect in neighbouring Haryana is something the Party is keenly watching. The State too is headed for polls next year.
It remains to be seen if Modi Sarkar’s muscular strategy works or will it end up uniting farmers even more? On one hand, the Government is fortifying protest sites thereby sending wrong signals and on the other, it has left the door open for talks. Time now, for both sides to forego their ego, find a middle path to create greater goodwill on all sides.
The farmers might have genuine grouses. But this is not the way to go about getting the Government to see reason. By remaining stubbornly inflexible they are creating a perception of being more interested in grandstanding wanting to humble the Government than seeking an equitable solution to their woes.
With every Party trying to exploit the situation politically it is not too late for a course correction. Both the Government and kisans should climb down from their stubborn intransigence and restart negotiations in the larger interest of farmers and the country. Sagacity must prevail. —- INFA