If there is a section of people that can bring about a tectonic shift in Bengal's political scenario, it’s the farmers. It was a group of agitating farmers that paved the way to the Chief Minister's chair for Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee. In 2007, Mamata led a three-year-long violence-laced resistance movement in Singur and Nandigram that put an end to 34 years of Left rule.
Fourteen years later, as Bengal readies for a volatile election, farmers have again taken to the streets. They are at the forefront of a protest -- not only in the state but across the country -- for the past 100-odd days against the three farm laws.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act were rushed through the Parliament last monsoon.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee trained her guns at the “anti-farmer” NDA government and asked them to repeal the “draconian laws”. The Bengal Assembly was the sixth state to pass a resolution against the laws last month with the support of the CPM and Congress.
Amid the impasse with the Modi government, farmers’ unions have pledged to campaign against the BJP in poll-bound Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
In a bid to mobilise the farmers, a union-led by All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) general secretary Hannan Mollah held a mahapanchayat at the Ram Leela grounds in Kolkata on March 12. Activist Medha Patkar, Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) president Balbir Singh Rajewal and Krantikari Kisan Union leader Darshan Pal were part of the meeting.
Speaking to The New Indian Express, Mollah said, “The nationwide protest will have a ripple effect in Bengal. This protest has made every farmer in the state and country aware of the black laws. Had it been only a western India issue, thousands of farmers would not have joined our call to protest in the eastern state of Bengal.”
He asserted that the movement has already left its mark in electoral ballots cast in Punjab where the BJP drew a blank.
“We have only one demand, repeal the farm laws. We don't want anything more or less. During our meeting, we won’t say anything in support of political parties but we are only going to campaign against the BJP,” he added.
However, the animosity among 70 lakh farmers in India’s largest food-producing state is not reserved for the Modi government alone. According to reports, there is palpable anger among farmers in Bardhaman and Hooghly where potato prices have fallen drastically.
Farmers in Bengal, the second-highest producer of potatoes in the country, have been demanding implementation of MSP owing to falling market rates.
Despite the standoff at the national capital, the BJP has repeatedly tried to reach out to farmers in Bengal, over a meal at their house or through collection of grains.
The Prime Minister too during his visit to the state repeatedly attacked the Mamata Banerjee government for allegedly depriving local farmers of benefits under the Union government's PM-Kisan cash assistance scheme.
Under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, all small and marginal farmers are entitled to receive up to Rs 6,000 per year as minimum income support. The scheme also promises all landholding farmers' families the financial benefit of Rs 6,000 per annum per family payable in three equal instalments of Rs 2000 each. The PM Kisan Yojana came into effect from December 1, 2018.
The Chief Minister claimed that she had asked the central government to route the money through the state administration, but last month agreed to roll out the scheme in its original form.
Rebutting the BJP’s claim, the state’s agriculture minister Asish Banerjee alleged that Bengal's farmers are content with their cash assistance scheme. The Bengal government in its last budget increased the annual assistance offered under the ‘Krishak Bandhu’ scheme from Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000.
Banerjee, equating the farmers’ movement with the 1859 Indigo revolt in Nadia district, said that the central laws will render farmers poorer. “We are very confident about this election. The Mamata government has always reached out to the farmers and worked for their welfare. Even the farmers know that,” he added.
However, it is very unlikely that the Congress-Left-ISF will be able to make electoral inroads due to farmers’ resentment against the TMC and BJP.
“There is so much anger against the state government that national issues such as petrol price hike and farm laws won’t matter. This election will be fought on local issues. The state’s farmers are unhappy due to the deeply-ingrained corruption in the TMC. The only option for them is to select the other strong party, which is the BJP right now. The Left and Congress are electorally insignificant. This will be a two-way fight between the TMC and BJP,” said former Principal of Presidency College and political scientist Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay.
The epicentre of Mamata’s rise to power -- Nandigram -- is again at the heart of the “Battle for Bengal”. In 2007, the TMC had vehemently protested against the then Left Front government’s futile bid to acquire farmland for a chemical hub. The March movement witnessed the death of 14 farmers at the hands of the state police. Now, flags of the saffron party grace the same place.
Mamata is locking horns with her former protege Suvendu Adhikari, who joined the BJP over differences with the TMC. Although Mamata was the face of the resistance, it was Adhikari who built the movement on the ground. According to reports, farmers in Nandigram are dissatisfied with the Chief Minister despite her efforts of returning their land, which remains uncultivable due to the presence of ground-deep concrete.
“Although Mamata launched her movement against the Left from Nandigram, people will root for the 'son of the soil' Suvendu Adhikari. There is a section of Left voters who might vote for the BJP, as they did during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections,” Mukhopadhyay added.
Meanwhile, the CPM is leaving no stone unturned in pointing out the TMC’s failures.
“Bengal is an agrarian state. Mamata along with the Centre is equally responsible for the farmers' condition. Look at the state of farmers in our state. Look at the crisis potato farmers are facing due to the fall in prices. Even during the time of the pandemic, the TMC failed to help the cultivators,” said CPM politburo member Mohammed Salim.
A group of farm leaders from Delhi will host a panchayat at Nandigram on March 13. Will it again seal Mamata’s fate?