The incoming Uttar Pradesh election is giving a fresh lease of life to farmers’ protests against the three farm laws passed by Parliament in September 2020. Last Sunday, on September 5, thousands of farmers gathered in Muzaffarnagar in western UP to listen to Rakesh Tikait address the ‘kisan mahapanchayat’, during which the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader expressly called on farmers to defeat the BJP in the 2022 state elections.
While the event clearly had an electoralist outlook, one should not reduce farmers’ discontent and mobilisation to simple pre-poll agitation. The length of the movement itself indicates the depth of the anxieties that stir many of the farmer communities. Over the past few decades, they have had to deal with increased costs and decreased returns of agriculture, and a growing lack of persification opportunities. They also have had to face competition from other groups that have exited agriculture earlier, and have prospered in more dynamic segments of the economy.
Another strong source of anxiety is the loss of political influence of groups that earlier dominated the social, economic and political landscape through their demography and control of the agrarian economy.
Over the past 20 years, the share of farmers within the political class of UP has greatly reduced, particularly in western UP. In the 44 seats of that sub-region alone, only 10 MLAs elected in 2017 declared agriculture as their main occupation, against 20 in 2012. At the same time, the number of MLAs who declared business as their main occupation grew from 18 to 25. Of these 25 businessmen-politicians, only seven belong to farming communities (five Jats and two Gujjars). Seven of these MLAs are from the upper caste category, four from scheduled castes (in reserved seats), three Muslims and the rest from various small other backward classes (OBC).
“Over the past 20 years, the share of farmers within the political class of UP has greatly reduced, particularly in western UP.”
Electoral volatility is another factor of dilution of influence of farmers’ communities. Election after election, a large number of seats keep changing hands between parties, but also between castes, revealing the transient character of political dominance in this region. In 2017, only 6 seats out of 44 were retained by the same party. Of the 32 seats that changed hands, only 12 elected an MLA who shared the same caste identity as their predecessor.
Western UP’s politics is a board game in which at least five major groups compete against one another, with a number of competitive actors emerging from smaller groups as well. Barring the absence of Muslims among BJP MLAs, there are no longer stable alignments between parties and castes, which add to the competitive character of elections.
As a result, the notion of ‘stronghold’, both party-wise or caste-wise, has become obsolete. Among the 12 seats retained by the same caste, only one, Shamli, is occupied by a Jat MLA. The other seats include five upper caste MLAs (Deoband, Muzaffarnagar, Sahibabad, Ghaziabad and Shikarpur), three Gujjar MLAs (Gangoh, Baghpat and Dadri), two Jatav MLAs in two reserved seats (Rampur Maniharan and Hapur) and one Saini MLA (Nakur).
In western UP, perhaps more so than in other parts of the state, the old agrarian elite has been displaced by a new class of politicians, grounded in business and belonging to a greater array of castes and communities. A long gradual process of decline accounts for the depth of engagement of farmers in these protests.
Is this going to affect the BJP’s prospect in 2022? Unlikely, for at least three reasons.
First, it is not the first time that farmers — Jat farmers, in particular — are expressing discontent against the BJP ahead of an election. They have done so in 2016 after demonetisation, which badly affected their economy, in the run-up to the 2017 assembly polls, and before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in the face of a declining economy. On both occasions, many voters from these communities did not extend their support to the BJP. In these two elections, the BJP won 37 seats and 27 assembly segments respectively in western UP, arguably with some support from farmers.
Part of the explanation for the continuing support of many farmers to the BJP is that the latter is the main party that provides them with representation. Since 2007, 11 of the 18 Jat MLAs elected in western UP were nominated by the BJP. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), technically a Jat party, only won one seat in 2012, in Chhaprauli.
Seeds of Division
Second, even if this new wave of discontent should lead to disaffection for the BJP, it is not clear which other party or political formation stands to gain from it. The second party in the area is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), weak in every other part of UP. A new agrarian party, an idea flouted by Tikait, is more likely to split votes to the BJP’s benefit. So far, the Samajwadi Party (SP) has refrained from building bridges with the protesters. The fact that the protests have essentially gathered farmers from western UP may indicate that the effects of their mobilisation are not likely to spill over to other sub-regions.
Finally, for all its might, the farmer’s movement remains isolated. One does not weigh in elections without the ability of building alliances. Kisan politics in the 1970s-80s was effective because it was led by farmers who acted from a position of strength, who could rally other groups to their causes. In today’s politics, it’s every group for one’s own. This, paradoxically, suits the BJP.
( Originally published on Sep 08, 2021 )