Which way will the farmers vote in the elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab? That is a serious worry for the BJP. The signs are not good, and the Budget has not made them any better. The fire of the farmers’ anger is still not extinguished. They recently observed a ‘Vishwasghat Diwas (betrayal day)’, to highlight the failure of the Narendra Modi government in fulfilling their pending demands. The party might just be hoping it does not lose too many seats.
Its calculation that the repeal of the three laws would create a favourable climate for it in the elections has gone wrong. While the party tried to sell it as Prime Minister Modi’s ‘gift’, the farmers refused to give him any credit, saying it was a ‘trophy’ they had won with their sacrifices, in their year-long battle against his government.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, which is leading the farmers’ movement —which continues to agitate for other demands such as minimum support price for 23 crops—is asking people to ‘vote for any party but the BJP’. In a way, the SKM’s electoral campaign is not just against the BJP but also against Prime Minister Modi. The SKM wants to defeat the BJP in order to weaken Modi. Because they fear that if Modi emerges stronger from these elections, he might bring back the repealed laws in other forms. Modi has lost their trust. They see him as pro-corporate.
For this, Modi and the BJP themselves are to blame. The farmers braved the cold, heat and rain on the streets for over a year. Over 700 farmers died in this period. The BJP painted the farmers as the sheath of the Khalistani sword out to cut away a limb of India. The Prime Minister called them ‘andolanjeevi’ or habitual agitators—making their movement seem so contemptible as not to deserve any attention.
The bitterness remains in the farmers’ hearts. The Prime Minister made it worse for himself and his party when he cancelled his trip to Ferozepur in Punjab midway on January 5, owing to a security breach. He returned to the Bathinda airport where he told the senior state officers, “Apne CM ko thanks kehna, ki main Bathinda airport tak zinda laut paya (I returned to Bathinda airport alive. Convey my thanks to your CM)”.
There is a popular Hindi saying, ‘Neem pe karela chadha’ (To the bitterness of neem was added the bitterness of bitter gourd). That is how the farmers took Modi’s remark. They saw it as nothing but a continuation of the BJP effort to portray them as handmaidens of terrorists.
Adding to the bitterness is their deep anger over the mowing down of the four farmers by Ashish Mishra, the son of the Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra, who drove his SUV through a crowd of protesters at Tikunia in Lakhimpur Kheri last October.
The BJP has adopted different strategies in UP and Punjab to combat the alienation of farmers. In UP, it has fallen back on its USP (unique selling point): Hindutva. It is raking up the skeletons of the violent clashes between Jats and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar seven years ago, in which over sixty persons died and thousands were displaced. “Have you forgotten the riots?” Union Home Minister Amit Shah asked the Jat voters in Muzaffarnagar during his door-to-door campaign on January 29. The message the BJP is trying to convey to the Jats is: “Think of yourselves as Hindus first, farmers later.” It has got traction among a section of the Jats. But those who are in the farmers’ movement are not listening. Their reply is: “We are farmers first, Hindus later.”
This is what in essence Jayant Chaudhary, the president of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)—a party essentially comprising Jats in western UP that had gained support owing to solidarity with the farmers’ movement—said when the BJP suggested to him that he break off his alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and combine with it. After Amit Shah’s meeting with some Jat community leaders in Delhi on January 26, Pervesh Verma, the BJP MP told the media: “We wanted to welcome Jayant Chaudhary to our home but he chose the wrong home. Our door is always open for him.” Chaudhary snubbed Verma in a tweet: “Don’t invite me (to your home). Ask the 700+ farmers’ families whose homes you destroyed.”
Chaudhary is obviously banking on the support of the Jats (and farmers of other castes in western UP) who are disappointed and angry with the BJP and say they are “farmers first, Hindus later.” They had voted for the BJP in 2014, 2017 and 2019, driven by the thinking that they were ‘Hindus first, farmers later’. But in 2022, they are being driven by their economic interests, rather than religious interests. It is for this reason that the Muslim farmers have also joined them.
The year-long farmers’ agitation brought Hindu and Muslim farmers of western UP together. In Muzaffarnagar, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha organised a mahapanchayat which was attended both by Hindu and Muslim farmers and where cries of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’ were raised to signify communal solidarity. The joint participation of Hindus and Muslims in the farmers’ movement has healed the wounds of the 2013 riots. A large number of Hindu and Muslim farmers had let themselves be guided by their economic interests, rather than religious interests. That was going to work against the BJP—which would prefer to see Hindus and Muslims divided along religious interests—and in favour of the SP-RLD alliance.
The farmers’ economic interests overrides their religious interests also with respect to the cow. Declaring that the cow is venerated as ‘mother’ in Hindu faith, the Yogi government banned sale and slaughter of cows. Farmers across the state, even those who are devout Hindus, are opposed to the government’s policy, as abandoned hungry cows and oxen are eating their crops.
In Punjab too it is economic interests that are driving a large number of farmers. A majority of participants in the farmers’ protests came from the state. Five hundred of the 700 farmers who died during the agitation were from the state. Some of the farmers’ unions that were a part of the agitation have formed political parties to fight elections to promote farmers’ interests.
The BJP, as always in Punjab, is not playing the Hindu card but the nationalist card. But that does not seem to be working. This election in Punjab is about farmers, not about national security. That is why the Shiromani Akali Dal broke its two decades-old alliance with the BJPand the BJP’s support in the rural areas has shrunk.