The protests by farmers in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh should not be seen in isolation. Besides the political economy of these protests, the implications for competitive politics are going to be complex. In order to appreciate these implications, the farmers’ protests need to be situated in the larger backdrop — despite the seeming stability of the Narendra Modi regime, the past three years have been marked by one protest after another. In contrast to claims that we are moving towards a “new India”, the regime is marked by tensions that have dotted the glorious acche din of the last three years.
Even if we leave out the protests by sections of the intelligentsia over freedom of expression — the ordinary voters did not appreciate or care about this broader question — India has witnessed many sporadic eruptions of popular protests in the last three years.Beginning with the students’ protests in Hyderabad University and later at JNU, we have witnessed a series of street protests — the agitations by the Jats of Haryana, the Patels from Gujarat, the Marathas from Maharashtra, over reservations. The protests by Dalits in Gujarat, and more recently, in Uttar Pradesh too demanded serious attention. Earlier this year, Tamil Nadu was on the boil over the issue of Jallikattu. For the past few weeks, most issues have been eclipsed as the farmers’ protests erupted in many parts of the country.
These protests are disparate. They cannot be said to be linked by any common factor; they are not directed against the Modi government as such. It is noteworthy that almost all these protests took shape entirely outside the party domain — they were neither organised, nor sustained by the non-BJP parties. True, once the protests erupted, non-BJP parties made efforts to jump into the fray and take them under their wings. But these efforts have not been successful.
This has been for two reasons: One, the non-BJP parties are still far away from forging an all-India coalition against the BJP. They don’t have an anchor — the Congress, which would claim to be the main contender to having an all-India presence, has singularly failed to build a larger coalition or to mobilise public protests systematically by itself.
Second, the BJP has been able to contain these protests at state-level itself because of the very nature of most of these protests, and also because of the BJP’s management skills.Hardik Patel did seek to unite the “peasant castes”; Kanhaiya Kumar traveled across the country and addressed students and the youth; Jignesh Mewani was made out to be the new hero of the angry Dalits; but each time, the issue got localised.
In a sense, the BJP has benefitted from a feature of Indian politics that took shape through the nineties; the states have been the main theatre of politics, and while the BJP wants to brush this feature aside to benefit from Modi’s larger-than-life national image, at the same time, it is also the beneficiary of this factor.
During the past three years, each of the protests got localised at the state level. When the Patel agitation erupted, it was the failure of the Gujarat government. In the case of the Jat agitation, the Haryana government was responsible for handling it — the heat never reached Delhi, it stopped at state capitals.
More importantly, a national narrative of popular disenchantment did not emerge from these isolated protests, while, on the other hand, the BJP’s nationalist rhetoric, its theme of development and Modi’s singularly successful salesmanship have all ensured that the narrative of an ascendant BJP has become all-India in its reach and impact.
The farmers’ agitations emerged in this backdrop. Like the caste question (for both peasant castes and Dalits), the agrarian question has the potential of becoming all-India in its scope. For the time being, the BJP is desperately trying to localise the protests. It is to the BJP’s advantage that the agitation has not been initiated by any political party, but by diffuse groups of farmers — both in Maharashtra and in Madhya Pradesh, the agitation has not had a prominent face. Even the focus on the simplistic demand of loan waivers is easy to handle because there is no organised machinery to advance more systematic protests against the larger issues facing the economy.
An ideological void marks the farmers’ protests, just as it marked the earlier “reservation” demands of peasant castes. The multiple groups that have jumped into forming the coordination committee in Maharashtra, for instance, are both incapable of and disinterested in taking a holistic view of agrarian distress. These include freshly anti-BJP faces (like Raju Shetti), simplistically pro-agriculture crusaders or confused anti-developmentalists. Such a crowd is not likely to present a robust critique of the present dispensation that governs India’s political economy.
And yet, protests, such as the ones unfolding in Maharashtra or Madhya Pradesh, clearly indicate the deep void the present policy and governance regime is causing. The current protests, for the first time, are likely to stir the Modi government out of its PR-driven complacency. For the first time in three years, the battle between imaginary acche din and lived reality on the ground is being waged out in the open. This development holds three possibilities.
First, the present moment has handed the Congress an opportunity on a platter. Concrete and objective issues have taken a political shape and all that the Congress needs to do is to take the side of the frustrated masses. Indeed, the possibility of this happening is bleak, for the simple reason that the local Congress machinery is no less despised by the protesting masses than they despise the insensitivity of the newly ensconced elite propped up by the BJP. Also, the Congress does not have the organisational skill and leadership ability to turn this moment into a critical move away from its current political wilderness.
Two, the dispersed protests can produce new actors who weave the reality of rural suffering with urban disappointments, and produce a fresh critique — however, such new actors will suffer from the absence of wider organisational networks across states and across social sections. One of the consistently pro-farmer movements, with the potential to also imagine larger policy perspectives, is the Swaraj Abhiyan. But it is too weak and distant from the political battlefield. As such, no threat is likely to emerge for either the BJP, or the ongoing myopic policies of growth.
Three, and perhaps much more likely, as has happened in the past three years, the issues will be deflected through media blitzes and localisation. Should that happen, the dissatisfaction would only become deeper, but invisible momentarily, and that invisibility would cause damage to the ability of competitive politics to respond to popular expectations. It can only corrode democratic possibilities further.