SSM's new political experiment in Punjab may reshape law making process in India
After the year-long protest forcing govt to rollback the 3 farm laws, a large section of protesting farmers in Punjab have floated a new political outfit – SSM, led by Balbir Singh Rajewal
As 2021 fades into history, we see the emergence of a new political experiment in Punjab. If it succeeds, it will reshape the future of Indian politics in the years to come.
After the year-long protest at the borders of New Delhi forcing the government to rollback the three contentious farm laws, a large and dominant section of the protesting farmers in Punjab have floated a new political outfit – the Samyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), led by the veteran farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal. Of the 32 farm unions from Punjab that were part of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha that led the protests, 22 farm unions have come together to form the new political outfit. Three other farm unions have agreed to support from outside the initiative at the political hustling.
Although seven other farm unions have decided to stay out, and refrain from showing any political leanings, the decision by protesting farmers to plunge into politics by forming their own political party has tremendous political implications. Given that the State Assembly elections are due in another few months, and given the goodwill and rapport that farmers have earned, perhaps farmers realised that there couldn't be a better opportunity to jump into the fray. Not easy, but backed by a section of the electorate that sees the farmers historic victory as a remarkable effort to reclaim the democratic space, and eagerly wanting them now to take a swipe at politics to cleanse the dirty as well as muddy political landscape, farmers couldn't resist the temptation.
Taking a leaf from the successful emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as the third political force, when a popular social movement against corruption led by Team Anna, of which I was a part, suddenly decided to go political. Many of us had stayed out, but a few members decided to take a plunge to cleanse politics literally with a broom, and look how the new entrant in politics has emerged as a strong contender at the national level. Drawing from the same successful experiment when the entry of activists into politics was ridiculed at by seasoned politicians, farmers are well within their democratic rights to try their hand in forming their own government, to take decision-making in their own hands.
But there is a catch here. Leading a protest and fighting an electoral contest and still more importantly leading a new outfit into political fray is by no means cut out for the ordinary. Farmers can be hoping to ride the goodwill generated but unless the leadership develops the political acumen required, it can by no means even think of converting the bonhomie generated into an electoral victory. Failure at the ballot box can push them back to square one. It will also send a wrong signal showing that farming issues are not all that important. Nevertheless, I am hoping that the learning farmers have garnered from the year-long protests; the efforts that had gone to sustain the movement for that long, farmer have acquired the necessary skills to wade through the political waters.
Although farmer leaders have tried their hands in politics in the past too with a few of them winning individual seats, but by and large it has not been an encouraging experience. Many of the well-known farm leaders have lost their deposits in the electoral process. There have also been attempts at forming political parties at the regional level but that too failed to generate enough enthusiasm among the farmers. The farming community was so divided on caste, religion and political ideologies that perhaps it was not the appropriate time to bring them together under a political formation. But the New Delhi protests had for the first time evoked a pan India response, with farming issues donning the national agenda for long. The critical farm issues had percolated deep and far, and farmers across the country did identify with the protesting farmers even if they were physically not present in the protests.
Drawing from the famous victory after intense protests, there is a growing feeling that farmers have finally arrived. People now generally understand what ails the farming community, and how farmers have been denied their rightful income all these years. The sympathy farmers have generated among the various sections of the society was the primary reason for the outpouring of massive public support and that too despite efforts to malign them. This is also the first time, when cutting across political ideologies, personalities and egos, farmers union have joined hands to get the laws repealed. This has given them a new confidence exuding from the realisation of how much political power they hold if they stay together. I only hope they don't give up on the new found confidence.
If they learn to stay together, farmers can surely create a political upheaval in the years to come. From being treated merely as a vote bank, allured by all kinds of sops and promises at the time of elections, to be soon forgotten thereafter, they have the ability to sway election results in their favour. After all, with 70 per cent rural households engaged in agriculture, farmers have a constituency bigger than what any political party has. They have the ability not only to swing the electoral results in favour of any political dispensation, but with growing political awakening of the immense political power they hold they themselves can take over the role of a decision-maker. It will only be then that they can redesign economic policies to make agriculture a powerhouse of economic growth.
That is why, as I said earlier, if the Punjab experiment succeeds, it will reshape Indian politics. If Punjab farmers can leave a strong electoral footprint, and showcase a clear cut determination to bring about a healthy change in politics as well as governance, it will inspire and invigorate farming population across the country to stand up and be counted. Even if SSM does not emerge as the largest party in the forthcoming elections, an honest attempt will keep it in the reckoning. People are looking for a fresh approach from a new entrant in politics; hoping that the SSM does not go into an electoral alliance thereby carrying the baggage of its political partner. That will be politically suicidal. At the same time, SSM is expected to come out with its economic vision that lays the steps needed to bring Punjab back to its days of earlier glory.
Whatever be the outcome of the forthcoming State Assembly elections, I am only hoping that farmer unions across the country join hands to forge an alliance keeping the 2024 general elections in mind. They still have three years to go, enough time to reach out to farming populations, and create an awakening on why the need to be in the hot seat.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)