Double whammy? Peasant movement's political plunge in Punjab
In his recent paper, ‘Farmers’ Movement in Punjab – Organisation, Stages of Mobilization and Achievements’, farm expert Sucha Singh Gill says between its inception in 1980 and 2019, the Punjab unit of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) splintered into 35 factions owing to ideological conflicts among its various leaders.
An unwitting consequence of the Centre’s brute push for three controversial farm legislations in September 2020 was the coming together of these factions – and others from neighbouring Haryana and UP – under the banner of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) to launch a sustained agitation that ultimately forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repeal the three ‘Black Laws’ last November.
When the victors of Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur, the borders of Delhi where farmers had camped in protest, returned home, Punjab, the epicentre of the peasant protest, was ecstatic. The returning farmers were accorded a welcome fit for battle-scarred heroes. It was widely known that their armistice with the government was conditional – they’d be back if the Centre reneged on its assurances or re-enacted the same laws. The intermittent teasing by the government – ministers like Narendra Singh Tomar and motormouth lawmakers like Sakshi Maharaj claiming that the scrapped laws could be passed afresh – was met with a terse ‘we dare you to’ attitude.
But then, history, as the cliché goes, has a stubborn penchant for repeating itself. Contemporary history, evidently, even more so.
Within a month of bringing the prime minister to heel, the unwavering unity among peasant unions that had withstood the tragedy of over 700 farmer deaths, vagaries of weather and the political stratagems of coercion, intimidation, character assassination and frustration for 15 long months is on the brink of collapse.
The statement of intent declared by a cluster of farmer unions, most notably by the 78-year-old prominent SKM face Balbir Singh Rajewal, to contest the upcoming Punjab assembly polls under the banner of Samyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), has shaken up the already tense political landscape of the predominantly agrarian state.
For the existing political players in Punjab – the ruling Congress party and its rivals Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), former chief minister Amarinder Singh’s new outfit the Punjab Lok Congress and the BJP – Rajewal’s announcement has triggered a return to their respective electoral war rooms to draft contingency plans should the farmers indeed enter the poll fray.
But, most importantly, Rajewal has exposed faultlines within the SKM days before its leaders are scheduled to meet (on January 15) to chart out future strategy. Several assurances the SKM had sought from the Centre while withdrawing the agitation are yet to be fulfilled.
The signs of discontent within the broad coalition of Punjab’s farm unions had emerged almost immediately after Rajewal announced the formation of SSM, a platform he claimed will be a common electoral plank for as many as 22 farm unions. Many of Rajewal’s SKM comrades, such as Joginder Singh Ugrahan, head of the numerically formidable BKU (Ugrahan), and Krantikari Kisan Union chief Dr. Darshan Pal, have publicly opposed the SSM. Pal dubbed Rajewal’s proposal a “mistake”. Ugrahan was more unsparing; he likened the formation of the SSM with betrayal of the principles on which the SKM was founded and said he would oppose Rajewal (and SKM leader Gurnam Singh Charuni, who has also declared his plan to take the electoral plunge).
The SKM’s nine-member coordination committee too issued a press statement, clarifying that its January 15 meeting will wake a final call on whether farmer organisations and their leaders who take part in elections can remain within the SKM umbrella. Rakesh Tikait, the most prominent face of the SKM who has himself been stung by criticism of his peers and rivals for his past political dalliances, was also categorical in his rejection of the SSM as an electoral front. Another key SKM member, the Kirti Kisan Union (KKU) organised a press conference in Chandigarh asking the SSM to desist from contesting the Punjab polls.
Weighing heavily on the SKM leaders who opposed farm unions entering the poll fray is the burden of appreciation that the farmers’ protest had garnered from well-wishers cutting across social, political and economic lines for keeping their movement “apolitical”. Through the 15-months of their protest, the SKM had maintained a safe distance from political leaders of the opposition who wished to stand with them in solidarity (and in the obvious hope of electoral dividends in the upcoming polls for Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh assemblies).
By entering the political arena when the need for reviving the farm protest isn’t yet entirely ruled out, are Rajewal and others in the SSM inadvertently quashing the goodwill they reaped till just a month ago?
Rajinder Singh Deepsinghwala, vice president of KKU conceded to The Federal that the unity of the farmers’ movement had “taken a beating” with the announcement of the SSM. There was no need for farm unions to contest polls when they, as a pressure group, achieved so much in the recent past and revived people’s confidence in democracy, he said. “Isn’t it a big achievement that a movement that was spread across some 70 to 75 parliamentary constituencies forced a government with full majority in Parliament to repeal the farm laws,” Deepsinghwala asked. He added that the SKM “as a united front still had much to achieve, including the legal guarantee for Minimum Support Price (MSP)” but Rajewal’s decision “taken in haste” came at a time when the farmer movement “was yet to fully achieve its mandate.”
There are, arguably, some similarities between the machinations currently underway within the SKM and the now largely discredited Lokpal agitation spearheaded by Anna Hazare at the turn of the previous decade; even if the peasants’ movement seems to be unravelling at a much faster pace. Hazare’s movement began with a veneer of being an organic people’s agitation against the then Congress-led central government. The early insinuations of its political affiliations with the RSS-BJP combine were stridently dismissed by its leading lights and counter-arguments on the scope of the much-publicised panacea for corruption in public offices – the Lokpal – that were advanced by the likes of Aruna Roy were drowned in the cacophony of Hazare’s Inquilab Zindabad chants.
Yet, when the Centre finally gave in, Hazare was pushed to the shadows and his key lieutenant, Arvind Kejriwal, announced the movement’s political offspring – the AAP. Lokpal was swiftly forgotten, even by Kejriwal, who has now ruled Delhi through three successive electoral victories (the first, in 2013, being short-lived) and has turned AAP into a seemingly viable political alternative for Punjab too. Through it all, Kejriwal survived dissent and desertions from co-travellers of the Lokpal movement such as Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Mayank Gandhi, et al.
Rajewal and others of the farmers’ agitation who wish to take the political plunge seem to be in a greater hurry. They aspire for a rich electoral harvest. However, unlike Kejriwal, the SSM wants to take flight before de-boarding errant passengers. Rajewal also, as is known, wants to explore an alliance with AAP – the party’s Punjab chief Bhagwant Mann is his old friend.
Beset by its own internal troubles, numerous desertions and the continuing hunt for an acceptable chief ministerial face, AAP has already declared candidates for 101 of the state’s 117 seats. Rajewal’s aides claim the AAP could bench some of its candidates to spare seats for nominees of the farmer unions should an alliance with the SSM fructify. For the SSM, time is already running out. The Election Commission is expected to announce the poll schedule later this month and the SSM has neither been recognized yet by the poll panel as a party nor been allocated a poll symbol. Amid all this frenzy, there is growing unease not just among SKM members opposed to farmer unions entering the political arena but also those within the SSM over the ramifications Rajewal’s purported move to ally with the AAP could have for the larger peasants’ movement.
Kulwant Singh Sandhu, state convener of Jamhoori Kisan Sabha and part of the SSM, told The Federal that “if any individual enters into an alliance with AAP, they would not be part of SSM”. A majority of farm unions, said Sandhu, feel that the SSM “represents the interest of not just farmers but of different sections of the society” and must contest the polls independent of any political affiliations or pre-poll alliances.
Sandhu admitted that farmer unions who agreed to join the SSM had, on December 23, expressed willingness for a pre-poll pact with AAP on the condition that “AAP would share 60 per cent of total seats in Punjab assembly” with the farmers’ outfit. With AAP already declaring 101 candidates, Sandhu asks, “where is the scope for an alliance now?” Sandhu still believes that the SSM, if it enters the poll arena alone, can make a big impact in changing Punjab politics. The front is already reaching out to various Dalit organisations, artists, and other social groups, but Sandhu cautions that an alliance with AAP could “limit our agenda”.
Another key SSM leader Prem Singh Bhangu told The Federal that the front’s decision to ally with any party cannot be an individual’s decision. He said that any such decision will have to be taken through consensus and that the SSM would hold a meeting later this week to discuss the issue. The dilemma of whether to ally or not to ally aside, the SSM has also hit turbulence on the issue of convincing prominent faces of its constituent unions to contest the polls. Harmeet Singh Kadian, the convenor of BKU (Kadian) and close ally of Rajewal, has already announced that he will not contest the polls.
The SSM had earlier announced that more farm unions, including BKU (Dakonda) and BKU (Lakhowal), had agreed to join the electoral outfit. However, Buja Singh Burjgill, president of BKU (Dakonda) told The Federal that the union held a state body meeting recently and decided to “stay away from electoral politics”.
Their rocky take off and internal disagreements, notwithstanding, there are reasons for the SSM constituents to believe that an electoral debut is a natural progression for their movement. Sixty per cent of Punjab’s population resides in the state’s villages. This rural vote bank, predominantly engaged in agrarian activity, is key to the formation of any government in Punjab.
However, this bloc has its own divisions – upper-caste Jatts who own farmlands and Dalits who form the workforce for both agricultural and non-agricultural labour. The political affiliations and voting patterns of these two vary; the Jatts normally vote en bloc while the Dalits are fragmented.
Riding on the success of the peasants’ protest in Delhi and the anti-establishment sentiment that the protestors brought back to their villages in Punjab, Rajewal and his SSM colleagues, perhaps, believe that farmer unions could score big victories if they unite to harness their goodwill when the state goes to polls in February-March. That unity remains elusive for now.
“It (electoral dividends for SSM) is easier said than done,” said political analyst Pramod Kumar, pointing out the rising conflicts within the SKM over the formation of the SSM. Kumar also says there is already a perception that the SSM is “a platform only of big farmers… none of the khet mazdoors (farm labour), who are a big vote bank in the villages, have come forward to align with the SSM because of the age-old conflict between big farmers and farm labour”. Kumar says a possible SSM-AAP alliance will also bring with it the burden of a political affiliation that the farmer unions have, hitherto, avoided.
For AAP, the advantages may be simpler to list. The party had, in its 2017 Punjab assembly poll debut, made impressive in-roads in the state’s Malwa region that constitutes 69 assembly segments and is the epicentre of farming activity. The AAP had bagged 18 of these seats, denting the traditional hold that the SAD, a self-proclaimed party of farmers, held over this region. The AAP had picked up only one seat each in the other two regions – Majha (25 seats) and Doaba (23 seats); the latter also has a sizeable chunk of peasant votes – of Punjab.
Through an alliance with the SSM and key farmer leaders in the poll fray, AAP could have hoped to make incremental gains by consolidating its base among the agrarian community. Farmers are, seemingly, willing to explore political options beyond the ruling crisis-ridden Congress, the Akalis who were, till a year ago, allies of the BJP and Captain Amarinder Singh, who as CM till recently was being ridiculed for poor governance and shoddy implementation of the Congress’s farm loan waiver poll promise.
Unfortunately for AAP, Rajewal seems unable to deliver either a united SSM for an alliance or prominent farmer leaders as potential candidates. Meanwhile, the Congress, Akalis, Amarinder Singh and the BJP are all, predictably, making anxious calculations to see how this fresh tilling of Punjab’s electoral landscape will impact their crop in this season of hectic political sowing.
As for the SSM, its leaders may want to dial up members of the Shetkari Sanghathan and its breakaway factions in Maharashtra for some advice. Founded by the late firebrand economist-turned-farmer Sharad Joshi in the 1980s, the Sanghathan was a prominent union for the state’s farmers. Maharashtra, like Punjab, has had a vibrant tradition of farm unions and peasant movements. However, Joshi’s decision to turn the Shetkari Sanghathan into a political outfit gave him limited and progressively declining electoral returns. It’s a breakaway faction – Raju Shetty’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghathan – too has failed to make any significant impact electorally or for the farmers of the state.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Chandigarh. He tweets at @guptavivek83).