All eyes are on the ‘Kisan Gantantra Parade’ to be held in the national capital on Republic Day. Farmers' groups from across the country are expected to converge in Delhi to support the ongoing two-month long farmers’ struggle against the three newly enacted Central farm laws, which are being termed by them as ‘black laws’.
In Maharashtra, Sunday witnessed a sea of red flag-bearing farmers affiliated to All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and various other farmer organisations descending from the Kasara Ghat on foot to cover nearly 200 kilometres from Nashik to state capital Mumbai, where they gathered at the historic Azad Maiden for a protest meet on Monday afternoon.
The marchers walked only a few kilometers in the hilly ghat section before boarding vehicles to reach Mumbai, but for many this brought back memories of the successful ‘Kisan Long March’ held in the scorching March heat in 2018. The sight of tens of thousands of predominantly Adivasi landless peasants trudging the heated tar roads, their bare feet bruised and bleeding as they covered the distance from Nashik to Mumbai in seven days, had then stirred the conscience of an entire nation. Indians of all hues had poured out their hearts on social media platforms expressing solidarity with the cause of Maharashtra’s long suffering farmers.
What was perhaps missing this time was the solidarity expressed by even Bollywood and cricket celebrities to the farmer’s cause. It had soon turned into public anger against the insensitive governments, both at the Centre and state, for refusing to address the economic injustice and social inequality that the peasant marchers were protesting. Not wanting to be left behind, parties and organisations across the political spectrum – except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – came out in support of the red flag raised by the AIKS. This had finally jolted the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government into action.
The continued struggles by farmers in Maharashtra resulted in an agreement between the state government and farmers' representatives assuring them loan waivers, benefits under various welfare schemes and the water conservation works in rural parts. However, Lokniti’s NES 2019 data shows that more than 50 per cent of the state’s farmers did not benefit from these schemes. Just about three per cent respondents to the survey reported to have benefited from the income support scheme and around five per cent from the agricultural loan waiver scheme.
The colossal failures and improprieties of successive state governments – there were charges of rampant corruption in irrigation projects when Ajit Pawar, a BJP ally for three-and-a-half days and current deputy Chief Minister, was the water resources minister during the Congress-NCP regime that ruled for 15 years during 1999-2014 – have resulted in Maharashtra gaining the notorious distinction of being the largest ‘graveyard of farmers’, accounting for nearly 75,000 peasant suicides during the past 25 years or so.
Even now, the BJP state leadership, including Fadnavis, seemed little bothered by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief and architect of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government Sharad Pawar addressing the protesting farmers at Azad Maiden on Monday along with leaders of ruling parties (though CM Uddhav Thackeray kept away citing Covid19 restrictions on mass gatherings), left and democratic parties and organisations.
BJP leaders were instead busy visiting Ralegan Siddhi to dissuade Anna Hazare from launching his indefinite hunger strike in support of the farmers' demands. The veteran anti-corruption crusader has come out in open support of the demands of the farmers protesting against the agrarian laws in Delhi and has threatened to undertake a fast from January 30 in his village if the Narendra Modi government failed to repeal the laws. He has also called on the Centre to implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission regarding minimum support price (MSP) and statutory status and autonomy for the Central Agriculture Price Commission.
Fadnavis led a delegation of BJP leaders on Friday trying to persuade Anna Hazare without much success. Speaking to the media after emerging from nearly two hour-long confabulations, the former chief minister and current leader of Opposition in Maharashtra said they had heard the activist’s perspective and would communicate to the Centre so that his concerns can be addressed.
Hailing Anna Hazare as “Maharashtra’s crowning Jewel”, Fadnavis appeared clearly to be trying to cajole the veteran from putting the BJP in a spot of bother, both in Delhi and Maharashtra, and hoped the Union government would take certain decisions based on his suggestions. The 83-year-old veteran of many social agitations had earlier written to the prime minister and the Union agriculture minister informing them of his decision to launch the “last hunger strike of my life” on farmers' issues in Delhi by January end.
This was after the Supreme Court stayed the three contentious Central farm bills until further order and formed a four-member panel. Senior BJP leader and former Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Haribhau Bagade was pressed in immediately to explain the details of the three farm laws but Hazare reportedly reminded him of how after his hunger strike at the Ramlila Maidan, the then UPA government had called a special session of Parliament. The leaders of the BJP, which was then in opposition at the Centre, had praised him and even given him written assurances over his demands, but were not fulfilling them, the crusader said informing Bagade that he had a video of BJP MPs praising him in Parliament then.
But should the BJP leadership be worried about Hazare more than the farmers protesting across states and in the national capital? “Anna is a spent force now,” a veteran social activist in Pune, who was once an associate of Hazare, said on condition of anonymity. He pointed out how the veteran crusader had changed his decision on the venue, preferring his village to Delhi for the hunger strike, “realising his charisma was on the wane”.
A decade ago, 2011 to be precise, it seemed nothing could go wrong for the anti-corruption crusader. Hailed as an avatar of Mahatma Gandhi, his campaign attracted a groundswell of support from disillusioned Indians tired of the mounting cases of corruption during the previous Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. The well-organised Woodstock like anti-establishment event at Ramlila Maidan, supposedly with quiet backroom support and politically clever manoeuvring by the BJP-Sangh parivar, had transformed Anna into a brand that millions of upper-class, middle-class, young and social media-savvy generation bought into.
Down the years, the gradual erosion of Brand Anna seems to have been complete in 2021. The roaring crowds seen across the four corners of the country during the heady Ramlila Maidan days have completely disappeared. The bunch of diehard supporters and sundry hangers-on has long deserted Ralegan Siddhi.
Still, the ruling BJP dispensation in Delhi appears more concerned with Anna’s fast than the farmers protesting in Maharashtra or elsewhere since months. It’s perhaps got to do with the leadership’s moorings in Gujarat, where optics and image building exercise worked wonders during Modi’s CMship and propelled him to the Centre. Fadnavis is an eager follower of Modi.
The coming days will reveal how things unfold for the nation’s protesting farmers, the political dispensations in Delhi and Mumbai, and of course the homegrown crusader from Ralegan Siddhi.
(Anosh Malekar is an author and independent journalist based in Pune.)