Author: Amandeep Singh
Institution: Independent Researcher, Michigan, USA
The politics around the on-going farmer agitation in India against three new farm laws requires closer scrutiny in order to provide a more holistic perspective on this issue. Multiple rounds of discussions between the government and farmers have resulted in a stalemate even as political stakes continue to rise. Farmers are seeking the repealing of new farm laws while the government is propounding alternative negotiations instead of a complete rollback. Nonetheless, it appears that the agricultural sector is deeply mishandled by both sides. There are no reports of any negotiations on deeper problems like falling water tables, depleting soil fertility, ecological imbalance, etc. Despite these looming problems, which could pose a potentially severe headache for farmers in the future, the two sides are grappling to keep current farming practices intact and fortified.
Year after year, farmers in the state of Punjab cyclically sow wheat in winter and rice in summer and sell it to government agencies at Minimum Support Price, often referred to as MSP. Through these new laws, the government is trying to eliminate guaranteed food grain (especially wheat and rice) procurement at MSP, thereby asking farmers to sell their produce directly into the open market. Farmers are apprehensive that the open market price would be substantially lower than the MSP and, therefore, they are protesting to repeal new laws.
However, there is also a political side to these protests. At the heart of these protests is the caste structure of India nurtured within a cultural psyche that vibrantly underpins the vigor of farmer agitations. One of the leading cultural factors propelling farmer agitation is the association of farming with Punjab’s Jat caste. Punjab’s folklore, movies, music albums, etc., have commonly reflected a bond between Jats and farming. A failure to get these laws repealed is being construed not only as an economic loss, but also a setback to the social and political prestige of Jats. Therefore, the new farm laws are being apprehended by Jats as an attempt to dismantle traditional structures of caste and power within rural political circles. Hence, the caste demographics are under rigorous political scrutiny during the farmer agitation and its effect on upcoming elections in 2022 is being closely monitored.
The BJP, India’s federal ruling party, has recently announced its intent to potentially nominate a Dalit candidate for the post of Chief Minister in Punjab. The BJP’s move has put all serious political contenders on the back foot. The two major political parties, Akali Dal and INC (or Congress) have traditionally followed a Jat first policy and ignored proportional caste representation in seat allocations, the appointment of ministers, or even the administrative posts like Vice-Chancellor of the agricultural university. Besides, non-Jats have been politically muted within the cultural space, through everyday caricatures and ridicule. The likely effect of the BJP’s move is to overturn this established cultural narrative by elevating non-Jat Sikhs within the political hierarchy.
It appears that the BJP has a strategic edge on the current political canvas. The party is building a narrative that there is nothing in farmer protests that safeguards Dalit interests, who are lowest in caste hierarchy, being mostly peasants and landless laborers, but account for 33% of Punjab’s population. Also, a return to a traditional mode of agricultural economics through MSP would only ensure a status quo of their marginalized survival. The party is swiftly expanding its base among non-Jats and small farmers, offering them proportional representation in its political cadre. This move challenges Jats who constitute 19% of Punjab’s population. If BJP manages to consolidate a majority vote bank based on caste affiliations, Punjab could potentially witness its first BJP government in 2022.
The BJP has already started questioning the legitimacy of a long political rule by Jats in state leadership including both government and opposition over the last 70 years. Interestingly, neither Congress nor Akali Dal have proven agile enough to swiftly reorganize themselves and nominate a non-Jat CM candidate. In fact, there are hardly any non-Jat top leaders in both parties who can be projected to counter BJP’s allegations of unfair and disproportional representation within their political ranks. Akali Dal members of SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee – the Sikh religious body) have recently announced the appointment of Jagir Kaur (a non-Jat Sikh) as its head and that is perhaps the maximum restructuring that the party could do for now. It seems that the only pertinent political strategy for Akali Dal is to target the BJP on its divisive politics, and for Congress to portray BJP as an anti-farmer and pro-capitalist party. Although, these are not hollow allegations, nevertheless these have negligible social resonance among non-Jats who have long complained of political subordination and social humiliation on a routine basis. They may see the BJP’s move as an opportunity to overthrow the traditional power structure, especially within rural spaces. Meanwhile, for now, both Akali Dal and Congress are mobilizing support for the farmers agitation, as the political framework reckoning on Jat power is swiftly becoming obsolete within the changing dynamics of the political terrain. The BJP, on the other hand, is looking to pioneer a new political adventure by overwriting traditional caste mathematics.
Notably, the urgency to initiate agricultural reforms over and above the skewed political economics is being ignored. In 2019, Punjab Chief Minister, Capt. Amarinder Singh warned that Punjab would become a desert in twenty years if corrective actions are not taken. Both farmers and government continue to ignore that Punjab’s water table is falling at an alarming rate as it is the leading state in the country with the maximum number of deep tube wells at a staggering 18.5% (4,85,379) of the total (26,18,792) according to the Fifth Minor Irrigation Census report. Similarly, the fertility of Punjab’s soils is falling perilously as the chemical fertilizer consumption in Punjab has grown from 168 Kg/hectare in 2000-01 to 257 kg/hectare in 2015. The government, on the other hand, is also walking the tight rope of procurement at MSP as the current buffer stock with Food Corporation of India has surged to more than double its threshold levels (811 LMT against the requirement of 307.7 LMT).
Farmers are aware of these looming challenges and can negotiate openly for productive and futuristic alternatives to farm laws like building rural agricultural infrastructure with cold storage, food processing, and packaging units near farms. However, with hardening stances on both sides, it appears that the current scope of deliberation is narrowing in its economic, ecological, or historical understanding. Farmers are glued to a single-point agenda of complete rollback of laws, instead of proposing an alternative to restructuring the ailing domain of agriculture. The government on the other hand has decided to pull back from a scheme that ensures a stable farm income without building a stable alternative, beckoning towards the idea that the government is anxious to shoot first and aim later.
The political ramifications of farm laws and agitations are perhaps greater than their agricultural consequences. Its magnitude can be measured in terms of the mobilization of Punjabi and the Sikh diaspora, who have carried out rallies in the support of farmers, in the streets of London, Vancouver, or Houston. Interestingly, there were almost no agitations during the sacrilege incidences of Guru Granth Sahib a few years ago. This underscores that the level of political anxiety around this issue has penetrated even deeper than the tragedy of a religious issue. The political situation on hand is comparable to the implementation of Mandal commission recommendations in 1991, which had inadvertently reset the political map of India and permanently truncated the political height of Congress. Prior to that Congress had a stronghold in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, politically the most significant states in the Indian electorate college. Congress leadership in these states was dominated by high caste leaders that were displaced by BSP and SP after Mandal Commission that represented Dalits and low caste peasants respectively. Tactically balancing the caste equation and overwriting caste by Hindutva over a period, the BJP seized a lion’s share of electorate from smaller parties. Strikingly, once the caste demographics was exposed in public imagination, Congress was never able to realign itself on caste lines and continued to lose its political stature.
In conclusion, the ongoing agitations are a last-minute struggle to fortify economic and social power in Punjab. Meanwhile, an indefinite delay in agricultural reforms will perhaps continue until the traditional culture of Punjab gets rid of its medieval feudalistic politics wedging its socio-economic roots. Nonetheless, it appears evident that irrespective of whether the BJP will make it to power in Punjab in 2022 or not, the political map of Punjab is set to be replotted in a way that will bring politics into line with the social reality. In other words, to stay politically relevant, it will be imperative for both Congress and Akali Dal to restructure their respective party cadre and leadership with proportionate caste representation. This indeed is a formidable challenge for both traditionally dominant political parties.