Farmer leaders can fill Punjab's 'political vacuum', fight crony capitalism, say activists and experts

Several analysts say that traditional political parties in Punjab have failed to provide transparent governance, and farmer leaders can provide an alternative

Vivek Gupta March 21, 2021 11:52:59 IST
Farmer leaders can fill Punjab's 'political vacuum', fight crony capitalism, say activists and experts

Farmers at the protest site near Ghazipur border in Delhi. PTI

In recent weeks, several farmer leaders from Punjab addressed rallies in poll-bound West Bengal. The rallies, however, seem to have found more resonance in Punjab than in the latter state.

Many activists and journalists from Punjab now say that the farm union leaders should take the political plunge in the northern state as well. The Assembly election in Punjab is likely to be held early next year.

Ludhiana-based Amandeep Singh Bains, a member of Tractor2Twitter, one of the pressure groups garnering support for the farm protests, said, "There is a strong reason why people want them (farmer leaders) to join electoral politics. If the recent clean sweep by the Congress in the municipal polls is any indication, there is presently a vacuum in Punjab's politics."

Bains further said, "Looking at the manner in which the farm leaders organised a massive protest against the Central government and are now campaigning against them in the upcoming elections, an aspiration has been created among Punjabis. They want them to provide them alternate options in Punjab as well...There is an undercurrent among people here that if farm unions can give them political leadership in the coming state elections, people will definitely vote for them to provide us clean and transparent governance — something traditional political fronts failed to do.”

Manjit Singh, a retired sociology professor from Chandigarh's Panjab University, said that farmer leaders should not outrightly brush aside suggestions that they should enter the political arena.

He said, "The recent campaign by farm leaders against the BJP in different states indicates their clear political stance. There is a broad feeling among Punjabis that there should be some party or political platform that provides them a sound political alternative. Many people are dissatisfied with the present political regime — the fact that no farmer organisation from Punjab let politicians join their stage is a proof of this."

Manjit Singh added, “At the national level, Modiji (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) is behaving like a partisan leader. That is the reason why farm organisations have openly asked people to vote against his party in the upcoming Assembly election."

In a similar vein, former MP from Patiala Dharamvir Gandhi said, "The farmers' outfits have a grassroots base and understand the issues that Punjab is presently facing. Such a large mobalisation of people in the ongoing farm protest has not come out of the blue. Over the last 30 years, farmers' organisations have consistently taken efforts to make people aware of the hidden agenda of crony capitalism. It is high time for them to take the political plunge and give a new direction to the people of Punjab."

Gandhi was earlier associated with the Aam Aadmi Party but later left the party. Subsequently, he formed his own political front, but has not met with any major success till now."

The former MP said, "Farmers' unions can provide a political direction not just to Punjab, but also to the rest of India. They can help fight the pro-corporate, anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit and anti-women agenda of the present BJP regime."

But the question is whether farmers' outfits will formally enter electoral politics. Till now, there has been no statement from the Samyukta Kisan Moraha (SKM), an umbrella organisation of over 40 farm outfits of which 32 are from Punjab.

Some within the SKM have not entirely rejected the idea but have not supported it publicly either.

Hamir Singh, a Chandigarh-based senior journalist who has been closely following the farm protest, said, "There is a possibility that a political group may emerge from the farmers' movement. There is a public mood in favour of it too. But nothing can be said right now, as the protest is not over yet."

He added, “One must understand that the representatives of farm unions have come from diverse political and ideological backgrounds. There are many in the SKM who have never participated in the electoral system. On the other hand, some have contested elections. So, in the farmers' protest, different interest groups have converged into one common platform for a larger purpose. It is too early to predict which way they will move. I think a lot depends upon the final outcome of the protest."

On the other hand, Amandeep Sandhu, writer of the acclaimed non-fiction book Punjab: Journey Through Fault Lines, is of the view that the massive mobilisation in the farm protest only became possible because, barring exceptions, most farm leaders never entered electoral politics.

Sandhu added, "Farmers leaders heading the SKM also understand that in the neoliberal era, the nature of politics has become such that when political parties are in Opposition, they promise earth-shaking changes. When they get power, there are lobbies and different interest groups to influence the parties in power and then they forget people’s interests. There are farmers groups like BKU (Ugrahan) which believe that the entire neoliberal structure is faulty and anti-people. That is why they had given the slogan 'Samaj Badlo, Raj Badlo'  (Change society, change governance) before the 2017 Punjab Assembly Election.

Speaking about why SKM leaders have entered political campaigns, he said, "They (leaders) may be non-political in terms of party politics. But they are citizens, and can't remain apolitical."

Sandhu further said, “In the last Assembly polls in Punjab, farm leaders held rallies to educate people, but did not support any political party. They are doing the same in Bengal but with one change: they are educating common people on the issues that will crop up if the BJP is voted to power. This is in keeping with their stance against the current BJP government at the Centre, which refused to take back the pro-corporate farm laws."

Jasdeep Singh, one of the editors of Trolley Times, a six-page publication on farm protest, said, "In the present lot, there are several outfits that have a clear stand that they will never contest elections and will only work as a pressure group. But there are many outfits that have political aspirations. They can take the plunge — if not directly, then through their representatives."

Pramod Kumar, political analyst and director of the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication, noted that Punjab has no history of any ‘exclusive’ caste-based or farmers' political parties, unlike other states.

“This is because Punjab by nature is an inclusive society. Even if there are efforts to form exclusive groups, they will have to enter into alliances with others. Punjab has a roughly 26 percent agrarian vote base. This means that any farmer-oriented political party can’t succeed on its own electorally,” he adds.

Kumar further said, "Further, Punjab’s crisis is that of the economy not of agriculture alone. Any political party will have to arrive at a holistic answer to the prevailing crisis. If a political party's agenda is limited to agrarian issues, they will not able to take the whole society forward."

He opined that farm outfits can at best work as a political pressure group, and that it would be difficult for them to succeed politically.

When contacted, SKM spokesperson Jagmohan Singh Dhakunda said, “Public discussions keep happening on a number of issues. But our stand at this moment is that we will remain non-political. The SKM is a unique group where people of different political ideologies have converged for a common issue — to fight crony capitalism and get justice for farmers in wake of the controversial farm laws. Considering the wide political differences within the organisation, there appears to be no possibility of the emergence of a joint political front. It is a separate matter that after our struggle gets over, different outfits may take their own stands."

In recent decades, Punjab’s politics has mostly been bipartisan, with power shifting between Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine. The Aam Aadmi party tried to make its mark in the last Assembly polls, but could not overturn the traditional political equation.

Now, the alliance between the Akali Dal and BJP has broken, and the AAP is also not perceived to be in the reckoning. In this context, many believe that there is an untapped political space, which farmers' organisations can capture if they take strides electorally.

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