‘Anna Daata’ of our country is protesting against government policies and implementation. This Kisan Kranti Yatra & others protests reflects that something is wrong with our agricultural policy. Government should understand the legitimacy of their demands and seriousness of their grievances
The huge march of the farmers in the capital, drawn from many states, made headlines – it was a change from the news about Ram Mandir and Maratha Reservation. They were protesting against the gross injustice against them and demanding remunerative prices as well as freedom from indebtedness.
The political highlight of the massive congregation was that most opposition leaders joined (literally) hands to come together to support the farmers. From Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party to Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference and from Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to Rahul Gandhi of the Congress – all of them appealed to the people in one voice to defeat the Narendra Modi government.
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The march obviously came at a crucial time – when the assembly elections in five states are underway and the ominous clouds of 2019 national elections are hovering over us. The question, therefore, is: do farmers form a homogeneous national constituency and an agricultural vote bank? Which identity shapes voters’ electoral choice – being a farmer or being a Maratha or a Jat or a Patel? Being a Hindu or a Muslim or a Sikh or a Christian? Being a Tamil, a Telugu or a Marathi?
It is not for the first time that farmers have been mobilized for a political agenda, notwithstanding the legitimacy of their demands and seriousness of their grievances. But have they voted as farmers or have they invoked other identities which they valuemore?
How effective were farmer leaders?
Sharad Anantrao Joshi was an icon for the farmers in the late 1980s, mainly in Maharashtra. He also became a national voice for them. Mahendra Singh Tikait once stormed onto the agricultural (and political) scene in Uttar Pradesh. That storm disappeared into the Ganges and that of Joshi into the Arabian Sea. Back in those years, they gave sleepless nights to the ruling parties. However, their impact on elections was minimal, if at all.
During the Janata Party rule (1977-79), a kind of shadow-boxing dominated the political discourse. Prime Minister Morarji Desai was seen as a representative of the capitalist class (not that this class liked him much) and deputy PM Charan Singh was regarded as the champion of the farmers. Desai’s budget used to be described as pro-capitalist and Charan Singh demanded a “farmers” budget.
Internal conflict between the two leaders led to the collapse of the Janata government. The Socialists and the Communists supported Charan Singh. But his government lasted five months. In the 1980 elections that followed, farmers as well as workers voted for Indira Gandhi, overriding their respective identities. Similarly, farmers joined the mammoth rallies of Sharad Joshi but ended up voting for the Congress, instead.
After the announcement of the implementation of the Mandal Commission by Prime Minister V.P. Singh in 1990, it appeared for some time that the Hindutva Rath started by L.K. Advani was halted by the Mandalite OBCs. But sooner rather than later, the “Kamandal” of the BJP absorbed the OBCs, neutralising the assorted “Mandalised” Left, which championed their cause. The Hindu identity was to become dominant in the ‘90s.
Caste as an identity
In the 1950s and the 1960s, the Communists (and some socialists) believed that the only genuine political identity was “proletarian”. Since the industrial and agricultural proletariat form the majority of the population, the belief went, they will trounce the rural and urban bourgeoisie in elections. But that identity of the “proletariat” could not become national, or even regional. In Maharashtra, the OBCs and factory workers became staunch Shiv Sena supporters.
Ram Manohar Lohia of the Socialist Party and later political scientist Rajni Kothari talked about how caste was an important determinant in the electoral choice. They identified the rise of the “middle castes” – whom we identify today as the Bhumihars, Jats, Marathas, Yadavs, Patels and so on. They are essentially farmers, but not landless, Dalits or agricultural labourers. This so-called “rise of the rest” finally materialized as a political force in the Mandal notifications.
Although these middle castes were called “backward”, they were “forward” enough to oppress the totally underprivileged and Dalits. Thus, the emergence of a new agricultural-rural bourgeoisie, or the neo-landed gentry. But their ‘identitarian’ uprising in various states was different from each other.
The only common factor was that they were farmers (but mostly not really poor). They never voted as “farmers” but more on the plank of the so-called backward caste identity. That is why Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh could not unite – not even as Lohiates or as JP followers. Mulayam kept the flag of “anti-Congressism” flying in Uttar Pradesh, but Lalu joined the Congress-led fronts and even supported Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
Is there a dominant identity?
Most often, the identities get so badly mixed up that it becomes difficult to determine the voting pattern on the basis of being farmers or workers. In many cases, the worker in a factory is from a farmer’s family. He may become a member of the Communists-led trade union, but may not necessarily vote for the party. And he may be more in tune with being a Maratha than a farmer. The so called Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, also a farmer, could not get the votes from farmers – although most of them are Marathas.
In Maharashtra, a very large section of the rural peasant mass voted for the BJP in the zila parishad elections nearly two years ago, even when the rural distress was believed to be at its peak. In Gujarat, when the discontent over demonetization and GST was widespread, Narendra Modi’s Gujarati identity proved superior. In Tamil Nadu, the Tamil pride is divided into two main parties and not between farmers and the rest. Once the CPM was the voice of the “Bengali Asmita”. Now, it is articulated by Mamata Banerjee.
Even Babasaheb Ambedkar could not mobilize all the Dalit votes for him or his party, the Scheduled Castes Federation (later Republican Party of India). And yet, caste-based parties are on the rise. So isn’t the farmer confused, when two or three rival parties give tickets to Yadavs, Jats, Patels or Marathas? How does he or she make the choice?
Yet another myth is that all Muslims vote as a bloc. The recent elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have shown that even that is not a vote bank. Muslims are farmers and workers, craftsmen and traders, entrepreneurs and Bollywood artistes and technicians. Whether Muslims or Hindus, Christians or Sikhs, the electorate has learnt to live with multiple identities.
The grand mobilization of the farmers in the capital did reflect the widespread agricultural distress and growing rural discontent, but that does not mean they will vote as a bloc. An Andhra farmer will vote as a Telugu or a Telangana resident and the Maratha farmer will vote as a Maratha or a Hindu. However, the morcha has served as a warning to the Modi government – whatever be their dominant identity, people are losing faith in his government. No wonder, the Ram Mandir Sankalp Yatra in Delhi was a flop show. Even the Hindu card, it appears, has worn out.