Bharat Bandh Today Live Updates: Highways, rail tracks blocked; strike successful, says Rakesh Tikait / Bharat Bhushan: Time for farmers' movement to launch a political party

Normal life was hit as farmers blocked highways and squatted on railway tracks at many places on the occasion of the Bharat Bandh called on Monday against the three contentious farm laws. The bandh began at 6 am and ended at 4 pm on Monday. BKU leader Rakesh Tikait said, “Our Bharat Bandh was successful. We had the full support of farmers…We can’t seal down everything as we have to facilitate the movement of people. We are ready for talks with the government but no discussions are happening.”

In both Punjab and Haryana, national highways, state highways, link road and railway tracks have been severally blocked, bringing road and rail traffic to a halt. In Punjab farmers protested at over 350 places. Punjab’s Additional Director General of Police(AGDP) has issued instructions to the police forces of the state to ensure law and order at protest places. A close watch is being kept at all the dharna sites. In Haryana too, highways are blocked 25 places alone in the Jind district.

In Punjab, the ruling Congress said it firmly stands by the farm unions’ Bharat Bandh call against the three contentious laws. The shutdown was almost complete in the state, with transport services suspended during the bandh period, while shops and other commercial establishments remained shut at most places. National and state highways in several districts, including Amritsar, Rupnagar, Jalandhar, Pathankot, Sangrur, Mohali, Ludhiana, Ferozepur, Bathinda, were blocked by the protesters.

Vehicular movement was disrupted in several parts of Jharkhand as supporters of the Bharat Bandh blocked roads and highways. Shops were shut in state capital Ranchi, while government offices and banks functioned as usual. Farmers took out rallies on the major roads and held meetings….

With less than six months to go for the Punjab state assembly elections, the mainstream political parties are growing apprehensive that the ongoing farmers’ movement may convert itself into an independent political party. Electoral calculations of the existing political parties in Punjab (and Uttar Pradesh) could go awry should that happen.

Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni, has been arguing that the only way to “change the system” is for the farmers’ unions to contest the forthcoming Punjab assembly polls. He was not contrite even after the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), coordinating the farmers’ movement, suspended him for a week for this.

Chaduni, who has earlier contested elections in Haryana, may not be alone in thinking about contesting Punjab polls. BKU leader Balbir Singh Rajewal was denied a ticket by the Akali Dal in 2017 and he supported the Aam Adami Party thereafter. Posters have now come up in Khanna projecting Rajewal as the next chief minister. In the context of UP, Yogendra Yadav, one of the faces of the farmers’ agitation, has also suggested that farmers must not remain apolitical.

It is an opportune time for the farmers’ movement to convert itself into a political party. Despite being sustained for over a year, the farmers’ agitation has made no progress in forcing a repeal of the three agricultural laws. The Centre could be digging in its heels based on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s calculation that but for the opposition in the north Indian states, the farm laws are popular in the rest of India and will lead to electoral gains for it.

ALSO READ: Live news updates: Bharat Bandh protesters block Delhi-Meerut Expressway

In this stalemate, the farmer’s movement will dissipate its political energy. Indefinite mass mobilisation would be difficult to sustain. There is no guarantee that the Opposition political parties that supported the farmers when they blocked the highways to Delhi, will do right by the farmers if they defeat the BJP. The farmers need a direct share in political power instead of untrustworthy proxies.

While the farmers’ unions are not politically united and do not share a clear ideological framework, all of them want a systemic change which gives requisite weightage to agriculture vis-à-vis industry. Despite internal differences, the 32 farmers’ unions were able to institutionalise themselves into the SKM. Can the tactical formation of the SKM farmers’ movement make the quantum leap into a political formation?

History is replete with examples of social movements transforming into political parties – the nav-nirman movement of Gujarat and sampoorna kranti (total revolution) of Jai Prakash Narain became precursors to the Janata Party and more recently the “India against Corruption” movement led to the formation of Aaam Adami Party. Initially both were against entering politics directly.

Farmers could learn from the failure of the Shetkari Sangathana to make an impact on the politics of Maharshtra. It demonstrates how reticence towards political participation can harm a successful farmers’ movement. Sharad Joshi, the moving force behind Shetkari Sangathana, began as an avowedly apolitical leader who thought he could transform agricultural policies through mass demonstrations. He only allowed his members to contest elections to cooperatives in the Sangathana’s goal of ensuring remunerative prices for farmers. He cultivated useful allies from the existing political parties across the ideological spectrum–inviting leaders ranging from Sharad Pawar, Chaudhary Charan Singh to Manohar Joshi and Pramod Mahajan to the Sangathana’s rallies but he avoided direct political participation in elections.

Sharad Joshi aligned himself with V P Singh and when Singh became prime minister, he appointed Joshi as chairman of the agricultural policy drafting committee with the rank of a cabinet minister. However, even before Joshi could submit his report the government fell. While it stayed away from electoral politics from 1980 to 1989, the Shetkari Sangathana finally decided to contest the Maharashtra assembly election of 1990. In 1994 Joshi launched the Swatantra Bharat Paksha, an avowedly free-market party along with Ram Jethmalani and others, that claimed the right-wing legacy of C Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party.

He kept shifting alliances and even became a Rajya Sabha MP with the help of the BJP and Shiv Sena in 2004. However, his party’s fortunes continued to decline both in Maharashtra assembly elections (from 5 seats in 1990 to 1 in 2004) and in the Lok Sabha, failing to win even a single seat in the general elections of 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004. Both Joshi as well as his protégé and later rival, Raju Shetty, were unable to get out of dependence on the BJP and Shiv Sena. Shetty got elected to the Maharashtra assembly in 2004 and to Parliament in 2009 and 2014 with their support. But as a result his position as a farmers’ leader was considerably weakened.

The Shetkari Sangathana story should warn the farmers’ movement that they should not miss the political bus. Sharad Joshi himself admitted that a major reason for the electoral failure of Shetkari Sangathana was its ambivalence towards electoral politics and inordinate delay in joining it. Joshi’s later dependence on opportunistic alliances left the farmers confused.

In more than a year of the mass mobilisation of the farmers, new cadre and new organisational leadership has emerged from the village, block and district to the state levels. It should crystallise into a political party while the movement’s energy is still peaking. It must not be dissipated by the fear of electoral politics.

Farmers who could fund a year-long agitation, should be able to fund election of candidates in Punjab and UP, and later in Haryana and Rajasthan. Their elected representatives will learn to negotiate the legislative process for the benefit of their constituency rather than being supplicants. It will also help the farmers’ leaders to broaden their agenda to include the interests of farm labour and form meaningful political alliances with industrial workers and other sections of the population. India could do with the emergence of a party which speaks for the largest interest group in the country and which is committed to pluralism and diversity.

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