Updated: March 5, 2021 8:58:42 am
Written by Sanjay Singh
Last fortnight, Rakesh Tikait, the newly-emerged first among equals among 40-odd protesting kisan unions, went from one mahapanchayat to another making a startling claim: “India is free but people of Gujarat are imprisoned. We will march nation-wide, go to Gujarat and set it free.” Not many people then realised why Gujarat suddenly figured in the BKU leader’s commentary.
It soon transpired that his headline-making statement was angled at influencing rural folks in Gujarat to vote against the ruling BJP in the panchayat and municipality elections. Tikait can’t be faulted for his fanciful ideas. An impression was sought to be created for the past six-seven months through a sustained campaign by many people within and outside the country that anger amongst the farming community against the three reformist agricultural laws was sweeping the country. They thought the farmer agitation presented the much-awaited opportunity to maim the Modi government.
But this is how the “imprisoned” people from rural Gujarat responded to the call from the likes of Tikait: The BJP was victorious in all the 31 zila panchayats, with 196 taluka panchayats out of 231 taluka panchayats in its kitty. The party secured 75 out of 81 municipalities. Two weeks ago, the BJP won all six municipal corporation elections.
Now turn the clock back. After the last assembly elections results in Gujarat were out in December 2017, Rahul Gandhi claimed a “moral victory” in the defeat. His statement was extensively debated on various platforms. Congress leaders and its aligned echo chamber took those results and Rahul Gandhi’s statement as a sign, finally, of his successful relaunch. Today, he is the most ardent supporter of the farmer agitation, even though Congress had actively pushed for reforms when it was in power at the Centre and even included them in its 2019 parliamentary poll manifesto. Rahul is too fond of saying farmers, workers and youth across the country are angry and going to make the BJP and Modi government pay heavily.
This background is important because the results of the local bodies’ elections are not just one more victory for the BJP in Gujarat. The win comes at a time when the political rivals and critics of PM Modi had started to believe that by enacting the three farm laws and standing firm on them despite a months-long, high-publicity movement opposed to them, the ruling BJP was wounding itself.
These polls were held in rural and suburban areas, and if there was anger against the BJP, it would be reflected here. The Congress had an impressive showing in the last panchayat elections. But these elections saw a complete reversal of fortunes for the Congress, the BJP’s principal rival in the state. In the 2015 rural local body elections, the Congress had emerged victorious in 22 zila panchayats while the BJP had bagged only 10. This time, the Congress was not able to even open its account in 16 taluka panchayats, 18 municipalities and one zila panchayat.
In Rajasthan, panchayat elections were held in November-December 2020, when the farmers’ agitation was at its peak. The BJP was pitted against the ruling Congress in the state. The polls saw a massive turnout. The BJP won 353 out of 636 zila parishad seats, the Congress won 252. In panchayat samitis, the BJP won 1,932 seats and Congress could win 1,799 and independents won 429.
In the Goa panchayat elections, the BJP won 33 out of the 43 seats it contested. In the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, the BJP increased its tally from five to 48. In the J&K DDC polls, the BJP opened its account in Srinagar. The Punjab urban bodies’ polls were a different ball game.
It can’t just be a matter of luck that the BJP is either winning handsomely in areas where it had a presence or has made handsome gains where its presence was considered negligible — in elections held after the lockdown and the farmers’ agitation had gained momentum.
Consider the results of the Bihar elections in October-November last year. The BJP won 74 out of the 110 seats it contested in Bihar and 40 out of 58 assembly bypoll seats in 11 states, which were held simultaneously.
These results suggest something that the Congress-Left and its support group, political and intellectual, are not willing to accept: The ongoing protests, in the name of protecting the farming community’s interests, have no takers beyond Punjab, parts of Haryana and Western UP. Rakesh Tikat’s tears and subsequent mobilisation had the inadvertent fallout of restricting the influence of the agitation to only one community.
Small and marginal farmers are happy about the three reformist farm laws. The previous laws, which had existed for over half-a-century, were restrictive and oppressive for them and beneficial only for large farmers, many of whom also acted as arhtiyas.
Modi continues to be popular. People at large believe in his sincerity and ability to deliver with unmatched speed and scale. Anyone who has travelled extensively in rural areas and spoken to people at some length would appreciate that his socially beneficial schemes and the direct transfer of benefits to the intended beneficiaries have made him a hero, the giver.
No matter what the international press, social media influencers, his domestic political rivals and activists want people to believe, the marginal farmers in rural India have made their voice heard through the recent elections. They are for Modi.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 5, 2021 under the title ‘The tally on the wall’. The writer is a senior journalist.