It is easy to mistake Keshav Patidar (name changed), a 40-year-old farmer in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district, to be an activist of a militant Hindutva outfit. He wears an expansive red ‘tilak’ on his forehead and is attired in a crisp half-sleeved kurta-pyjama, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made his trademark.
However, Keshav is no fan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Nor is he a Congress supporter.
“We will side with neither and support only those who talk of farmers and farmer issues,” Keshav says. He requested his real name not be printed, as police have taken to detaining his colleagues who’d spoken to journalists.
Keshav is a leader of the dominant Patidar community of the Mandsaur-Neemuch region. They’re a landholding community and traditionally BJP supporters. However, they are increasingly disillusioned with the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in the state. And, disappointed that Modi hasn’t delivered on promises he made to farmers during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign.
“I sat beside Shivraj Singh Chouhan the day he announced a big sum for a hostel for Patidar girls. Three years have come and gone. Nothing has happened,” Keshav says. The farmer leader was one of several local politicians who the homes of those killed in police firing at Mandsaur’s Pipliyamandi.
Anant Jauhari is head of Kisan Adhikar Manch, an apolitical grouping of farmers working in 11 districts of MP. He says farmers are increasingly turning away from political parties. Whether Congress, BJP or others, he says, they have only fostered the interest of big business houses and middlemen whenever they come to power. “There were political parties in the past which fought for our cause. Now, most are handmaidens of corporate groups.”
This trend of thought is evident in the trade union (TU) movement as well. On May 30, as many as 10 central TUs met in Delhi’s Gandhi Peace Foundation. They decided to hold a bigger meeting on August 8 at Talkatora Stadium in the capital, to announce protests in the coming months against the Modi government’s disinvestment policy. According to one of the leaders, there were suggestions from the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress, and also from Left affiliated unions, that some political leaders be invited.
“We resisted this. These are workers’ movements. We are raising issues that concern all workers, across party lines. We don’t want the movement to be given any political colour. These leaders are welcome to show solidarity with us,” said the chief of one of the other TUs.
The unions plan to organise massive strikes in November and February, to protest privatisation and disinvestment of public sector units.
Farmers in Mandsaur, elsewhere in MP or even neighbouring Maharashtra where demonstrations have continued for over a fortnight have kept away from aligning with political parties. There were a few Congress flags in sight at these demonstrations. Neither have protestors carried the red banners associated with Leftist political parties or its affiliated peasant and worker unions.
The BJP leadership has repeatedly pointed an accusatory finger at the Congress and other parties for fanning the fires but has found it difficult to convince people. It is not that opposition parties are not keen to jump. But, the respective leaderships have learnt important lessons after their failed anti-demonetisation campaign. The opposition mounted a challenge during the note ban decision but discovered that it lacked Modi’s credibility.
Yet, shouldn’t the Congress exploit this moment? For, the MP assembly poll is slated for end-2018. Mohan Prakash, one of the party’s national general secretaries and in charge of the MP unit, rejects such assessments. “It is our political duty to stand with people who are in pain and fighting for their rights. We aren’t looking at elections, he says. And, contends that Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi tried to visit Mandsaur only to express solidarity with farmers.
The CPI(M)-supported All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and Bhumi Adhikar Andolan have also expressed support to the movement. “But, local outfits have led the movement. It is foolish for the BJP to be accusing us. We do not have that kind of cadre strength in Mandsaur and adjoining districts,” says eight- time former Lok Sabha member and AIKS general secretary Hannan Mollah. An AIKS delegation will visit Mandsaur on Tuesday.
Similarly, there are those in the Congress who concede the party lacks the cadre strength to sustain the movement until the next assembly poll. It also does not want to give the movement a political colour which could lead the ruling party in the state and the Centre an opportunity to malign it.
In Madhya Pradesh, non-party leaders like Medha Patkar, Sunilam and Yogendra Yadav have expressed solidarity with the protests. The police detained them on Sunday as they tried to visit Mandsaur. The Bharatiya Kisan Union has announced a protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on Thursday.
On Saturday, several of the farmers’ outfits met in Delhi’s Gandhi Peace Foundation to decide a course of action. They decided to organise protests in Delhi in the coming week. Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan leader Shiv Kumar ‘Kakkaji’ led 62 other outfits to agree to a nationwide protest against the firing in Mandsaur on June 16.
For the Modi government, the challenge is evident. A Modi-led BJP might be unvanquished against caste arithmetic but its next big test is the putative class unity of peasants and workers.