As breakaway SKM unions plough a political furrow, farmers' movement left lonely and vulnerable

Apart from the major political parties, the breakaway Samyukta Kisan Morcha unions led by Balbir Singh Rajewal and Gurnam Singh Chaduni have declared joint candidates for the Punjab Assembly polls

Indra Shekhar Singh January 23, 2022 08:07:13 IST
As breakaway SKM unions plough a political furrow, farmers' movement left lonely and vulnerable

Farmers protest against the three agricultural laws at the Singhu border, near Delhi. AFP

With parties naming their chief minister candidates, the battle has been well and truly joined for the land of five rivers. Apart from the major political parties, the breakaway Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) unions led by Balbir Singh Rajewal and Gurnam Singh Chaduni have also declared joint candidates for the state. But will farmer unions' political foray work?

A quick recap. For over a year, the SKM doughtily held firm at Delhi's borders demanding the three farm laws be repealed. About 750 farmers lost their lives as the movement spread to different parts of the country. It also brought farm leaders like Rakesh Tikait and Joginder Singh Ugrahan into the national limelight. Opposition parties were quick to shower their blessings on what became an anti-NDA stir.

The farmers' leaders, claiming to be apolitical, campaigned across India not only for the repeal of the three laws, but also to make Minimum Support Price (MSP) a legal right for farmers; a demand many think is fair given the generally dismal state of agriculturists.

SKM defanged

The farm laws are gone now, and so is the protest. And things have changed: It hardly matters now if the Modi government repealed the laws for political mileage or for farmers' welfare or was forced to. The fact is that the repeal of the laws destroyed the SKM camp's "common cause". A schism had to open, and it did.

The alliance and seat-sharing between Gurnam Chaduni's Sanyukt Sangharsh Party and Balbir Singh Rajewal's Sanyukta Samaj Morcha has already been declared. Rajewal, some believe, tried to work out an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) but failed. Rajewal harboured ambitions for the top post, which the AAP couldn't surrender and soon after launched a bitter campaign questioning the "funding" of farmers' parties.

The political foray has caused a big rift within the SKM too. The coalition, if not dead, has drastically weakened. Important leaders like Rakesh Tikait and Joginder Singh Ugrahan have vehemently opposed this step, and maybe rightly so, because farmers will find it hard to beat the BJP's well-oiled political machinery. They may be walking into a political trap.

Some leaders have repeatedly said that SKM is apolitical. Early political bird Chaduni was suspended earlier this year for voicing his political views. But no disciplinary action has been taken against individuals or the unions so far. There are no formal suspensions. An SKM press release only chided the breakaway leaders for using the manch banner and further said that any member "contesting elections or playing a major role in elections on behalf of a party, will not remain in the SKM". It also added a caveat, a pretty watered-down one: "This decision will be reviewed after the Assembly elections in the month of April."

History has a way of repeating itself. Not long ago, Delhi witnessed the Lokpal agitation led by Anna Hazare. It was apolitical too, and before realising the Lokpal or anti-corruption dream, the Aam Aadmi Party was birthed from the movement.

By repealing the laws, PM Modi has broken the hitherto impregnable farm protest fortress. The SKM doesn't share common interests anymore; this has happened even before the battle for the MSP could reach its logical conclusion. The official narrative tells us that there will be a committee for the MSP. But hasn’t every committee since the Swaminathan report advocated the same, in some way or the other? Will this new committee be any different? It has been almost a month since the farmers left Delhi, yet we know nothing about this committee, its members or meeting schedule.

Lakhs of farmers and citizens rallied behind SKM's call to mobilise against the three farm laws. Many of them lost their lives, suffered police batons and joined the farmer movement. Today these people are dismayed as the battle has been left midway and a section of the unions has decided to take a political plunge. Many of them feel betrayed for leaving the fate of MSP hanging in balance.

The reason is obvious, most farmers across the country didn't even know about MSP, but thanks to year-long movement in Delhi, Indian farmers have awakened to MSP. They had trusted the SKM leadership to deliver them MSP, but it seems SKM has other plans. These plans include elections.

It's becoming obvious by the day, but bears saying: The Kisan Andolan is at its weakest today. By leaving Delhi’s borders, the leverage and visibility, which the movement had, have gone up in smoke. If this political foray fails, they would lose all over again. In any case, success will be nothing short of a miracle, for beating the BJP at its own game is the revised price now.

One can always argue that farmers will return to Delhi for MSP and this is only a "temporary retreat". But it won't be that easy again. For one, the state security apparatus has closely studied the working of the farmers’ movement, their organising capabilities for over a year. If by any chance the SKM reunites, and decides to start a march to Delhi, the tracking and detention of the leaders and cadre will be that much easier. All the targets have bullseyes painted on them.

The writer is the Director of Policy and Outreach at the National Seed Association of India. Views expressed are personal.

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