Amid chants of “Allahu Akbar” and “Har Har Mahadev”, the Kisan Mahapanchayat in Uttar Pradeh’s Muzaffarnagar on September 5 sought to tap the rural anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and unite farmers of different castes and religions.
The meeting, held in a city rocked by communal riots in 2013, could unite Muslims and Jats and pose problems to the BJP in the February 2022 Assembly elections.
Lakh of peasants gathered in the western UP district under the banner of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha—an umbrella body of over 40 farmer unions protesting at Delhi borders against the three farm laws and demanding legal guarantee for a minimum support price—vowed to oust the Yogi Adityanath-led regime.
“During Tikait sahib’s time, farmers chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ at such meetings. We want to revive that tradition,” Rakesh Tikait, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader and younger son of legendary farmers’ leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, told the farmers chanting the two religious slogans.
Distancing themselves from campaigning for any opposition party, the organisers launched ‘Mission Uttar Pradesh’ and said that such meetings will be held across the state ahead of the elections for “saving” the farmers, the youth, business, workers and the country.
The agitations against the three laws are expected to set the election agenda in the state, which has 403 Assembly constituencies and sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha.
When asked whether such meetings will impact the elections, three local Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leaders who attended the day-long meeting, said, “Let’s wait; it’s too early to comment.” Two of them, a former and serving pradhan (village head) of a Meerut village, were not much vocal against the government except criticising the local MLA and non-revision of sugarcane price.
If the sugarcane price is hiked ahead of the elections with the UP government already holding a sugarcane pricing committee meeting earlier this week and farmers expected to get arrears and better price, the three leaders equivocally replied that a large section of farmers will favour the BJP.
Explaining the silence of these ground-level leaders to Newsclick, senior journalist and political observer Ravindra Rana said that several ongoing infrastructure development projects in western UP benefit such leaders irrespective of their political affiliations.
“They won’t open their cards unless opposition parties turn the tide in their favour for several reasons: they don’t want to lose their contracts and other sources of income; they fear political arrests and harassment; they may lose their tickets in the next local elections if the BJP comes to power again,” Rana said.
The ruling party has an edge so far with the Opposition lacking an aggressive campaign, Rana said, adding, “The BJP’s poll strategy revolves around the principle of ‘saam, daam, dand, bhed’ (persuade, purchase, punish and exploit weakness). To counter the anti-incumbency, the saffron party is doing what it does best—polarise society on religious lines. It is trying its best to make the Taliban problem and the events in Afghanistan an election narrative. As before, the so-called mainstream media with its Afghanistan coverage is helping the party push the narrative.”
The BJP, according to Rana, still enjoys the support of a sizable chunk of Jat voters despite the community being largely engaged in agriculture. Because of its Hindutva ideology, the BJP already enjoys the support of non-Jatav Dalits and a large section of non-Yadav OBCs.
“The BJP might find it tough only if the Opposition becomes aggressive and sets the narrative. The Samajwadi Party—the main opposition party in the state—failed to challenge the BJP’s narrative that the agitating farmers are mainly Jats and Sikhs of Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh,” Rana said. “The SP, a party of Yadavs, who are largely peasants, failed to mobilise the community to join the protests in large numbers and change the BJP’s narrative.”
Despite the BJP’s edge, Rana sees a revival of relations between Jats and Muslims with the farmers’ protest taking center stage in the region. “The agitation has changed the political atmosphere in western UP. The upcoming elections will not be a cakewalk for the BJP with the meeting bridging the gap between Jats and Muslims of western UP regions to an extent. This unity is likely to help the RLD.”
The saffron party made major gains in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Assembly polls. Jat-dominated western UP, where it had won 105 of the 136 seats, is crucial for the BJP. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP-led alliance registered a thumping victory by winning 324 out of the 403 seats. The National Democratic Alliance also won 64 out of the total 80 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
All India Kisan Sabha leader P Krishna Prasad too feels that the farmers’ protests and such panchayats are part of a mass movement that will help undo the BJP’s communal polarisation. “The 2013 communal riots in Muzaffarnagar divided the peasants and the working class on religious and communal lines—and helped the BJP come to power. The Mahapanchayat symbolised the unity of the working class against communal division,” he told Newsclick.
Sudhir Panwar, a former member of the UP Planning Commission and a farmer leader from Shamli, western UP, feels that the Mahapanchayat was organised at a very crucial time and would impact the elections. “The meeting was organised ahead of the harvesting season and when inflation and unemployment are spiking. The speeches of the leaders should strike the right chord.”
The selection of Muzaffarnagar as the venue for the event was apt as the “bonhomie between Jat farmers and Muslims will pose a political challenge to the BJP”. “The participants were visibly excited hoping for a change of guard,” Panwar said.
Terming the meeting “politically motivated”, the state BJP unit said that it would not impact its prospects in the upcoming elections. “It was a politically motivated event organised keeping the elections in mind. The false narratives won’t influence the UP farmers, who are not allied with the organisers because they are not in distress,” UP BJP spokesperson Harish Chandra Srivastava told Newsclick.
“UP peasants know that the state government has procured a record 56.41 lakh metric tonnes of wheat on MSP this year as against only 8 lakh metric tonnes under the previous regime. The farmers are well aware of the government’s achievements,” a confident Srivastava added. He claimed that the state government has cleared sugarcane dues to the tune of more than Rs 1.42 lakh crore. Adityanath, he said, last week announced that the government will increase the purchase price of sugarcane from next month.
However, the Supreme Court on August 4 sought to know from the Centre and 11 sugarcane-producing states, including UP, on the status of payment of sugarcane dues. On July 7, the Allahabad High Court sought a reply from the UP government in response to a public interest litigation claiming that the state owes around Rs 12,000 crore to sugarcane farmers.