Circa October 1988, Boat Club Rally, New Delhi.
I was still a relatively young man then, a couple of years after I returned to India after my PhD in the US. I realised that most of what I knew about my own country was bookish knowledge, theoretical rather than practical. Of the real forces that moved India, I knew precious little. But I was not alone. Among the thousands of the more privileged Indians who were equally, if not more ignorant, was our own Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
And his coterie of friends, admirers, and advisors who ruled India. Like them, I was utterly taken aback to see large swarms of what our elites would call the “unwashed masses” that autumn in the national capital. For six weeks, they thronged about Rajpath, planting themselves on the India Gate lawns, washing in the canals, fountains and at handpumps in the very heart of Lutyens Delhi. The man behind the movement was someone I had never even heard of—Mahendra Singh Tikait.
Inheriting the uneasy legacy of Chaudhary Charan Singh, who had started the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Tikait had rallied the farmers, mostly of western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, against Rajiv Gandhi’s farm policies. Eventually, some five lakh farmers camped in the capital for months. Major opposition leaders, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, addressed them in massive rallies. Soon, they brought the Rajiv government to its knees, forcing it to accede to Tikait’s 35 point charter of demands. These included higher support prices for sugarcane and waiving electricity charges.
It is another matter that Tikait didn’t quite rise to those heights again despite leading two more agitations in 1990 and 1992, confined mostly to UP. Again, the modus operandi was the same. He laid siege to the state capital, Lucknow, forcing the governments of the day, led respectively by Mulayam Singh Yadav (Janata Party) and Kalyan Singh (BJP), to succumb to his demands. In 2008, Tikait was arrested by the then CM Mayawati for a casteist slur against her. A posse of 8,000 policemen descended upon his village to book him. He was released after tendering an apology.
Is February 2021 a Tikait redux moment? The BKU with its splinters and offshoots is still very much an outfit run by the Tikait family. It is once again at the helm of the farmers’ protest against a new set of reforms brought in, this time by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second NDA government. But things are different now. Neither Rakesh nor Naresh Tikait, even combined, add up to the magnetic might of their uncompromising, stern and charismatic father, Mahendra Singh. The latter was cast in the mould of a traditional kisan neta, a son of the soil, whose sincerity to the cause could not be doubted.
Today, however, the next generation is seen to be compromised and allied to the opposition parties. In fact the same party, the Congress, against whom the father fought and won, now supports the Tikaits. Not only are the sons not equal to the father but, also, more importantly, Modi is much more than equal to Rajiv. A visionary leader with a political and strategic savvy that has so far outclassed all opponents, Modi is not likely to buckle under pressure.
He is backed by a strong team, has an absolute majority in Parliament and what is more significant, knows that the next general elections are three years away. Modi realises that farm reforms would prove to be a major challenge in India. He therefore timed them in such a way that their political fallout would be limited only to certain states in northern India. But the most important difference between farm protests then and now is that not only has the world changed drastically, but so has India. The aggregated term “farmers” therefore must not be used too glibly or uncritically.
There are farmers and farmers. The ones agitating are not only aligned to the opposition and, as has been pointed out quite often, with anti-India forces, but also share a basic characteristic that Karl Marx pointed out long ago. Medium-sized and well-off Russian farmers, who owned at least eight acres of land, were pejoratively termed kulaks (one meaning of the word is tight-fisted) in orthodox Marxist terminology. They represented deeply conservative—even atavistic—elements of society deeply opposed to the revolution. We may exalt our own farmers as annadaatas, with slogans such as Jai Jawan Jai Kisan, or romanticise them in Bollywood pastorals.
But the fact is many of them represent backward-looking, anti-progressive and selfish interests. Paying no income tax, enjoying free electricity and MSP regardless of the surplus stocks of rice and wheat in government godowns, they continue to burn stubble even if it chokes others. They are opposed to change and progress. Somewhat like other traditional vested interests such as trade unions, caste caucuses, and religious, linguistic or other identitarian mobilisations, they don’t hesitate to hold the rest of us to ransom.
No wonder, some farmer groups, too, can be law-breaking bullies opposed to the national interests, as we have recently seen. They do not discuss the content of the new bills, but, it would seem, irrationally campaign for their rescinding.
Soon, the tide of sympathy will turn against them. They may find themselves isolated, swimming against the national current, losing popularity because of the huge losses to the exchequer that their agitation has caused. The government, on its part, needs to market the benefits of the farm reforms much more aggressively.
The options with the government are many. If push comes to shove, as a last resort, the government may even make the agri laws optional, leaving it to the individual states to decide on the timetable of their implementation. This will be a masterstroke, deflecting the anger from the Central government to the states. In a few years, the results will be there for all to see. Those states that have adopted the farm laws are likely to do better than those that have not. When the emotional rhetoric subsides and real gains on the ground can be gauged, those left behind may also fall in line.
Makarand R Paranjape (Tweets @MakrandParanspe)
Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Views are personal