Experts believe that a perceptive conclusion to this dilemma cannot be arrived at without taking into account the political inclination of the two key faces of these protests - Rakesh Tikait and Yogendra Yadav.
The protracted agitation by farm unions against the three farm laws passed by the Centre last year taking a political overtone is perhaps the biggest criticism the movement and its leaders have faced so far. The palpable change in the nature of protest as elections approach has led to related concerns, even within the fraternity sympathetic to the farmers’ cause, that the politicisation of the movement has subdued the root cause for the agitation.
On one hand, the farmers remain firm on their demand that nothing less than a repeal of the three farm laws is acceptable, the agitation is seeing a renewed push in poll-bound states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. In a recent interview to FinancialExpress.com, Jai Kisan Morcha founder Yogendra Yadav, one of the leading faces of the farmers’protest, argued that a movement of this nature should indeed be political and resisting from speaking to the government in the language it understands – of votes and elections – would be utterly foolish. Yadav also admits that political parties do indeed gain electoral mileage out of movements of this kind.
Similar statements have also been made by BKU spokesperson Rakesh Tikait who said that similar to West Bengal, efforts will be made in Uttar Pradesh to create an atmosphere against the BJP in 2022 assembly polls. While the SKM and BKU are yet to spell out their plan of action for the poll-bound states, a ‘Mission UP’ and ‘Mission Uttarakhand’ are on their list of priorities. So, has the focus of the farmers’ protest completely shifted from attempts to engage with the Modi government to realise a political agenda? Or a political push the only option left for the movement to take in order to get the Centre to buckle?
Experts believe that a perceptive conclusion to this dilemma cannot be arrived at without taking into account the political inclination of the two key faces of these protests – Rakesh Tikait and Yogendra Yadav.
Tikait, who is now the face of the ongoing farmers’ protest, had contributed significantly to the BJP’s impressive electoral show in western Uttar Pradesh in the post-2014 period. In 2013, after the Muzaffarnagar riots claimed over 60 lives, Tikait mobilised the Jat community in western Uttar Pradesh and aligned with the BJP to an extent that they went against RLD Ajit Singh, the son of Chaudhary Charan Singh, the biggest leader of the community.
Tikait contested from Amroha on Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal symbol in 2014 but purportedly, his khap panchayat and “polarisation” helped the saffron party. The polarisation broke the unity in Jats and Muslims in the region, eventually resulting in one of the biggest factors contributing to the BJP’s victory on all the Lok Sabha seats.
However, despite helping the BJP in 2014 and then in the 2017 UP assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Tikait’s political career failed to flourish. On January 28, following the Red Fort violence on Republic Day, Tikait shed into tears at a press meet as he made an emotional call at the Ghazipur protest site, saying he would commit suicide but not end the protest. These few tear drops not only made him a prestige symbol for Jats in western UP but also gave the protests a new direction. Changing his political alignment with every shift in power politics, Tikait could be now eyeing the farmers’ movement as a new bid to regain his political clout.
Meanwhile, Yogendra Yadav, who has been pivotal in these protests, was also instrumental in the Shaheen Bagh protests and the larger anti-CAA protests.
When asked about the impact that the protests could inflict upon the BJP in the upcoming assembly polls, Yadav said, “I would like it to have an effect. I would like to believe that in Bengal, we did have an effect. It would be silly on my part to assume that we were the ones who changed the Bengal election results. We probably made one or two degrees of difference, we are happy that we did. And if we make three degrees of difference in Uttar Pradesh, that’s even better.”
When asked whether the entry of political players will subdue the farmers’ interests, Yadav had said, “Whoever gains, gains; whoever loses, loses. Anyone sitting in political power must realise that ‘Kisano se panga nahi lena aage se’ (don’t mess with the farmers here on).”
Locus standi of protests
Yogendra Yadav wanted to “keep the flame on” between the farmers and government, so that the people’s perception go against the latter, Sangit Ragi, HOD Political Science, Delhi University, tells FinancialExpress.com.
“Yogendra Yadav is out-and-out anti-BJP. Secondly, he would never like any compromise, any understanding between the farmers and the government. And this is primarily why he wants to keep the flame on, so that the people’s opinion goes against the government. In every trade union movement, you can always find there is a solution,” he said. Ragi said the protests should have been withdrawn after the Supreme Court put the farm laws on hold, but the farm unions refusing to budg from their demand of withdrawal of farm laws makes it evident that they are not willing to find common ground.
In a recent interview to a Hindi news channel, Tikait admitted that the MSP in states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu was way less than what the farmers received in Uttar Pradesh. This raises questions on the rationale behind the protests being more aggressive in poll-bound UP than in other states.
Have Rakesh Tikait and Yogendra Yadav weakened the protests?
Tikait’s entry into the farmers’ protest in January this year pushed other farmer leaders, who actually began the protests, out of the picture, Narender Kumar, Professor at Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, tells FinancialExpress.com.
“Ever since Rakesh Tikait entered the movement, which was mainly helmed by farmers of Punjab, the entire focus shifted to him, primarily after he cried following the Red Fort violence case. And other leaders who were leading the movement, they are nowhere in the picture now. So, somewhere people knew this beforehand that his (Rakesh Tikait) entry will weaken the farmers’ movement,” he said.
Citing the Black Panthers movement in the US and Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, Kumar says that movements tend to deviate from their real cause when they begin to take a political overtone. “There have been a lot of movement which started for a cause but later changed into politics, only to get faded. For instance, till the time the Black Panthers movement in the US was non-political, it was perceived very differently among the people. Even the Anna movement eventually turned political, but despite taking a political overtone, it managed to maintain an image in the public, which is indeed quite difficult,” Kumar said.
Professor K Sivasubramaniyan, Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, says that the politicisation of any issue is the biggest problem in the country. “Farmers’ movements are like heavy fires in the forests. There is no doubt that political players coming into the movement will create a negative impact,” he says.
Agriculture expert Devinder Sharma, however, is of the view that politicisation of the protests is an appropriate strategy for the farmers to take. He goes a step further to say that the farmers should target the Lok Sabha elections of 2024. “I am myself of the opinion that it is time for the farmers to go political. By political, I don’t mean they form a party right away, but they should target the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.”
Why more response in northern India?
Unlike Delhi, borders are not sealed in other states, neither in the South nor in the eastern or western states. Even the Bharat Bandh, called by the protesting farmers on September 27, saw its impact in the national capital and neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana.
Swadeshi Jagran Manch’s Ashwani Mahajan claimed the Bandh was not successful even in the states of Haryana or Punjab largely but was restricted to small pockets of influence of these agitating farmers. “This whole protest has become more political with even the Congress and AAP and other parties joining in.”
Why northern states remain the focus of protesting farmers is because of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab going to polls in less than six months from now, where they want to “make an impact”.