Monday’s countrywide bandh by farmers agitating over the past ten months opposing contentious legislation by the Modi government in the agriculture sector indicates their resolve not to give up their demand for a complete repeal of the controversial laws. In fact, the farmers’ unions leading the agitation have got increasingly confrontational against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre, threatening to campaign against it full tilt during the coming assembly elections in several states early next year. While there is little doubt that the farmer’s agitation would have an impact on one of the states going to the polls — Punjab — where it has ruptured ties between the BJP and its long-trusted ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the million-dollar question is whether the farmers’ protests highlighted by today’s bandh can topple the BJP juggernaut in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and by far the most politically crucial state, which also faces an electoral mandate in a few months.
On the face of it, unlike Punjab and Haryana, where farmers have been up in arms across the states, the agitation in Uttar Pradesh is largely confined to a handful of districts in Western Uttar Pradesh close to the national capital, Delhi.
In most other parts of this vast and hugely populated state, support for the farmers’ agitation has neither been very palpable nor widespread. This was evident even during Monday’s bandh, when much of the disruption of road and rail traffic happened in areas adjoining the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, but life remained virtually normal in the rest of Uttar Pradesh. Nonetheless, in nearly every district, token rallies were taken out by local farmers demanding the repeal of the farm laws.
Lack of Strong Contenders
Several seasoned analysts of politics in the state feel that the tepid public response across Uttar Pradesh to the bandh does not augur well for Opposition parties, who have unanimously come out in support of the agitation and are hoping to cash in on it during the coming elections. For instance, Delhi-based Belgian political scientist, Gilles Vernier, who has specialised in Uttar Pradesh politics, feels that thought in Western Uttar Pradesh the powerful Jat agricultural community had been openly critical of the BJP before both the 2017 state assembly poll and the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it failed to stop the party from romping home with most of the seats in the region.
Vernier also feels, “Even if this new wave of discontent should lead to disaffection for the BJP, it is not clear which other party or political formation stands to gain from it.” While the Congress has been vastly diminished in Uttar Pradesh, the two regional former heavyweights, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) are yet to seize any political advantage from the farmers’ support, except for mouthing lip support. On the other hand, farmers’ leaders such as Rajesh Tikait from Western Uttar Pradesh don’t appear to have the inclination or the ability at the moment to directly participate in politics.
But Analysts Also Point to 'Deep Frustration'
However, agriculture expert Devinder Sharma cautions against underestimating the depth of the frustration among those involved in agriculture and their anxiety about a grim future. “The fact that the new farming laws would remove guarantees of minimum support price [MSP] and leave the fate of the farmers in the hands of the rapacious corporate has led to a lot of disquiet and silent anger in the farming community,” he says.
Asked whether he thought that the farmers’ agitation and steps like Monday’s Bharat Bandh could impact the Uttar Pradesh election beyond a few districts in Western Uttar Pradesh, Sharma said he was surprised at the number of invitations he gets from farmers’ groups in Eastern Uttar Pradesh to talk to them on the dangers of the new farm laws.
He believes it’s too early to predict whether the BJP could lose the Uttar Pradesh election because of the farmers’ agitation, but maintained that the farmers were deeply upset and insecure about what would happen to them in the near future.
The farmers’ agitation has also got the surprising support of several Dalit activist leaders in Uttar Pradesh, such as Ram Kumar, founder-leader of the Dynamic Action Group, one of the oldest activist groups on the stage. “The farmers’ agitation will be a game-changer in the coming Uttar Pradesh polls. The callous manner in which the government has dealt with the farmers has come as a shock to even poor Dalits, who are directly affected by the agricultural laws. Many Dalits wonder if the government has bulldozed the farmers who used to have so much political clout in the past, what would happen to the really oppressed and marginalised unless the current regime in Uttar Pradesh is thrown out,” said Kumar.
Can the Farmers' Agitation Beat the Hindutva Card?
Much would depend on whether the vast rural hinterland of Uttar Pradesh is politically motivated enough about bread-and-butter issues raised by the farmers’ unions and reject the tried-and-tested Hindutva trump card played by the BJP. In the last state assembly election, farmers in western Uttar Pradesh, despite suffering from the brash and disastrous demonetisation gambit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ultimately decided to give the BJP the benefit of doubt, largely because the other parties did not have much credibility.
This time around, the farmers certainly seem angrier and more organised, having sustained their agitation for ten long months. However, the BJP, too, has further consolidated its Hindu vote in the state under the leadership of Yogi Adityanath, and other political parties in the state seem even weaker than before. It is thus possible that farmer’ agitation, which is now turning into a direct confrontation with the BJP ahead of the state assembly election but lacks adequate political leverage from other parties in the state, may not result in a tectonic shift electorally in Uttar Pradesh.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and the author of ‘Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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