India has seen several large farmer-led movements. Yet, farm issues have rarely dominated national election campaigns, as Indian farmers remain divided by caste, geography, and class
More than thirty years after hundreds of thousands of farmers led by Mahendra Singh Tikait brought Delhi to its knees, a new farm agitation has once again shaken Delhi. A government worried that it might be seen as ‘anti-farmer’ has agreed to reconsider the recent farm laws - which promised to open up rural markets to private firms - even though agitating farmers are not satisfied yet.
However, the success of the agitation may still be short-lived, even if the government capitulates to the demands of the farmers now. As Tikait discovered three decades ago, it is difficult to sustain farm movements for long.
Farmers across the country have typically found it hard to unite for a cause, and even when they do, the unity is short-lived. Most farmer-leaders carry weight only within their own castes and communities, and have historically struggled to build broader coalitions that can change electoral agendas and outcomes.
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, we regularly heard stories of rural distress and farmer angst. Yet, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition was able to increase its vote-share among farmers more than among other voters across major states, an analysis of the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey data shows.
To be sure, there were exceptions such as Punjab and Chhattisgarh, where a stronger opposition was able to capitalize on farmer disenchantment. But across the country, NDA’s vote-share among farmers went up 8 percentage points between 2014 and 2019. The increase in its overall vote-share was slightly lower, at 6 percentage points. An income support scheme for farmers (PM-KISAN) announced ahead of the 2019 elections may have calmed tempers. More importantly though, farm-related issues were displaced by national security concerns once the Balakot terrorist strike took place.
Unlike terrorism, which generates a nation-wide appeal and unites disparate castes and communities, farm issues have not gained similar salience in elections even though a majority of Indians depend on farming for their livelihood. Like other occupational groups, farmers have often given greater preference to caste and community considerations while voting.
Apart from caste-wise differences, the wide divergence in the fortunes of farmers across different regions of the country works against pan-India unity. The average size of land-holdings, for instance, is much higher in the northwestern belt than in other parts of the country.
Even large protests by farmers tend to be centred around north and north-western parts of the country. It is not a coincidence that states in this region such as Punjab and Haryana are home to the largest chunk of big farmers. In other states, the proportions of large and medium farmers are relatively small.
Even an issue such as that of minimum support prices (MSP), which has been a focal point of the ongoing protests, affects farmers in states such as Punjab and Haryana much more than other states. While a majority of farmers in these states benefit from the guaranteed prices the MSP regime ensures, only a small minority of farmers in this country are able to derive any benefit from the MSP regime. Fruit and vegetable growers, typically small farmers, are entirely outside the ambit of the MSP regime.
These factors have ensured that farmers have rarely been able to unite across the country to shape electoral outcomes. One politician who rose through farmer-led movements to make a mark on national politics was Chaudhary Charan Singh, who formed the Bharatiya Kranti Dal in 1967 and became the leader of Bharatiya Lok Dal in 1974. Even Singh represented one section --- rich and middle peasants belonging to middle and backward castes --- and found some success in getting their voice heard.
Singh later formed the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in 1978, and after his death in 1987, Tikait resurrected the organisation in Uttar Pradesh. The BKU took a non-political position, which it continues till now, to derive broad-based support. The Tikait-led protests in the late 1908s were against high power tariffs and erratic supply. Its success was limited because of its narrow social base. The movement largely represented the interests of surplus food grain producers and was dominated by big landlords. It failed to give voice to the demands of small farmers and agricultural labourers, and failed to evolve into a wider rural movement, capable of framing electoral agendas.
There are some reports now suggesting a more broad-based coalition behind the current spate of protests but the dominance of farmers from one state (Punjab) and from one class (large and medium farmers) is unmistakable. As long as the farmer movement represents just one section of India’s vast countryside, it is unlikely to alter the status quo.