It may seem counter-intuitive to discuss the Bharatiya Janata Party’s counter-offensive against the farmers’ movement, when not only has the government withdrawn the three contentious farm bills, but the Ministry of Agriculture has also accepted in writing , in a letter to Samyukt Kisan Morcha, some of the other key demands of struggling farmers. These requests include
1. A committee comprising SKM and State representatives will make the final decision on the Minimum Support Price (MSP);
2. Police charges against all participants in farmers’ protests will be withdrawn;
3. Compensation will be paid to farmers who have suffered (although it is unclear whether compensation will be given only to families who have lost members or also to those whose members have been injured);
4. The electricity bill will not be presented to parliament until the SKM gives its consent; and finally
5. Regarding the burning of stubble, the clause on the criminal liability of farmers will be deleted.
The ministry’s letter, however, makes no reference to the Lakhimpur Kheri violence and the demand for the dismissal of the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs whose son was implicated in the violence against the farmers. The minister himself has publicly threatened farmers of Punjabi origin who have lived and worked in Uttarakhand for decades, saying their lands and homes will be seized unless they stop participating in the movement.
Apart from the request of farmers linked to Lakhimpur Kheri, all other requests have been accepted. Granting these demands could be seen as a concern, however belated, of the BJP government for the farmers, and from this perspective, it would seem contradictory, or at least odd, for the BJP to consider a counter-offensive against them. at the same time. However, the BJP government’s acceptance of farmers’ demands and its simultaneous development of a counter-offensive are strategically linked.
To understand the logic of this link, it is necessary to abandon the idea that acquiescence to farmers’ demands was driven by concern and instead acknowledge that it was politically coerced from multiple angles, not just by the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections which have been given undue prominence by most commentators on the subject. The forced surrender and public humiliation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the politico-economic battle over farm laws is engendering feelings of revenge against farmers, and it is this backlash that is driving the counter-offensive.
The rage against farmers circulating among trolls on websites supporting the BJP is an indicator of this. More importantly, the agribusiness interests that have been the driving force behind the Farm Bills still have their sights set on Indian agriculture. The agenda of global and Indian agribusiness corporations has not been defeated; he suffered only a temporary setback. Their strategic moves to reassert power and control are as much a material force behind the BJP’s planned counteroffensive as they were during the 2020 launch of the now repealed laws.
The main target of the BJP’s counter-offensive is Punjab. Although Punjab is a fringe player in the electoral game of national political governance, controlling only 13 seats out of 543 in the Lok Sabha, the state has become the bastion of the current farmers’ movement against the Farm Bills which represented the agro industry. program of major Indian industrial players, closely aligned with the current BJP government and, by implication, the Hindutva project.
Continuing its counter-offensive to destroy the farmers’ movement in India, the BJP is making strenuous efforts to seize power in Punjab, where it has always been a small player – its electoral base has been limited to the urban caste” superior”. Hindu community which constitutes about 13% of the population of Punjab. Although the total Hindu proportion of Punjab’s population is nearly 38%, including Hindu Dalits, the BJP’s lack of significant support among Dalits has historically relegated it to the status of a minor player in Punjab’s governance.
The BJP has been looking for some time, even before the farmers’ movement, for a prominent Sikh face to lead their campaign of support in the majority Sikh community. Recent events have made this an even greater priority. The BJP is doing its utmost to recruit a variety of Sikh leaders from the three main parties in Punjab – the Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi party. It is to the credit of leftist political tendencies in Punjab that the BJP has not been able to poach a single leftist activist. The left, once a considerable force in Punjab, has waned since 1984, when most left-wing groups – especially the CPI and CPI(M) – mistakenly began to pursue pro-central government policies, but its opposition steadfast to the BJP may now allow it to re-emerge as the anti-establishment force it once was.
The BJP is also working to build electoral alliances with those reluctant to join the party. He has already announced an alliance with the ramshackle Punjab Lok Congress launched by former Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh after suffering a humiliating defeat in a party fight that saw rival Navjot Singh Sidhu appointed to head of the Punjab Congress. The third partner in this alliance is the Akali Dal faction led by Rajya Sabha member Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa.
It is well known in Punjab that in Congress, Amarinder had associated with the BJP even when he was in power, and in the Akali Dal, Dhindsa was a strong promoter of the alliance with the BJP and were awarded with a Padma Bhushan in 2019. Both men have had some political standing in the Sikh community but risk losing it by aligning themselves with the BJP. Dhindsa, in particular, faced strong resistance from his splinter faction Akali to aligning with the BJP, due to the negative image of the BJP in the Sikh farming community. Ranjit Singh Brahampura, his faction’s top leader, took up resistance to Dhindsa’s open pro-BJP slant by deserting his faction and joining the mainstream Akali Dal (Badal) which was forced by the farmers’ movement to split from the BJP.
The BJP is also known to negotiate with Jasbir Singh Rode, the nephew of the late Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and other radical Sikh groups for considering their demand for the release of some Sikh political prisoners who are still in jail even after served their sentence. full prison sentences. This demand is a genuine human rights demand, but the BJP is likely to present the acceptance of this demand as a concession to the Sikh community with the aim of making inroads into the support base of disgruntled Sikh groups who are unhappy with the Akali Dal for not securing the release of these political prisoners during the ten-year period of Akali-BJP coalition government.
In the weeks and months leading up to the 2022 assembly elections, multiple types of efforts – some secret – will be made by the BJP to seek support from the Sikh community. The objective of the BJP counter-offensive is to create a pro-BJP government in Punjab with the BJP as the dominant party, instead of being a minority partner as was the case in the Akali/BJP coalition (2007- 2017). Such a government – with a Sikh prime minister and Sikh police chief on the Beant Singh-KPS Gill model under Congress rule (1992-97) – would be used to dismantle peasant organizations in Punjab.
Once the peasant organizations in Punjab are destroyed, the BJP is convinced that the peasant movement at large would be paralyzed. He may not succeed in his counter-strategy, because unlike the 1980s and 1990s when the Congress-controlled media successfully portrayed the image of Sikhs as terrorists and secessionists, the historic success of the peasant movement inspired the image of Sikhs – both nationally and internationally – as a community of peaceful protesters who have a strong tradition of social care and community service (is going). The assistance provided by Sikh institutions and individuals to people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to this positive image. However, the risks of harm to Sikhs and the farmers’ movement posed by the BJP’s counteroffensive cannot be overstated. Recent incidents of sacrilege at major Sikh shrines, particularly the Golden Temple, and the lynching of individuals involved in the sacrilege are interpreted in many quarters as part of the great counter-offensive against the farmers’ movement in which the Sikhs have played and continue to play a leading role.
Farmers’ organizations in Punjab and their wider support networks must be particularly aware of the dangers presented by the BJP’s counteroffensive. From the perspective of overcoming farmer resistance to Hindutva-aligned agribusiness capitalism, winning the 2022 elections in Punjab is even more important than in UP. If the BJP loses UP but wins Punjab, it will have another two years to regain the upper hand over UP before the 2024 general election. However, if it loses in Punjab – even if it wins in UP – its program to promote the interests of agribusiness would effectively be defeated. If the BJP were to lose in both Punjab and UP, it would be the biggest possible setback for agribusiness and the Hindutva agenda.
Farmer organizations in Punjab urgently need to come up with a well thought out election strategy that can defeat the BJP’s bid to seize power in Punjab. The decision of 22 peasant organizations (out of a total of 32 in Punjab involved in the current peasant movement) to contest the Punjab assembly elections in 2022 under the banner of Samyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) will be keenly watched from the angle the maintenance of the unity of the peasant organizations and the possibility of defeating the counter-offensive of the BJP. Farmers’ organizations won the battle against the BJP over the Farm Bills – a mostly economic victory, but with serious political implications; they must now embark on the campaign to thwart the BJP’s plan to seize political power.
Pritam Singh is Emeritus Professor, Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford, UK and author of Federalism, nationalism and development.