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Farmers Unions Are Targeting Modi in India’s Elections

Farmers remain united in their opposition to Modi’s far-right government and their demands for economic justice.

Police stop a rally of Central Trade Union Federation members during Bharat Bandh called by farmers, at Dak Bungalow crossing in Patna, India, on February 16, 2024.

As the world’s largest democracy began the first of its seven-phase general elections last week, India’s farmers were back on the streets protesting the government’s U-turn on earlier promises. It has not been long since the farmers grabbed the world’s attention by camping at the borders of the national capital in Delhi for a year, forcing Narendra Modi’s government to meet their demands.

Ever since, agriculture has remained a contentious issue with farmers around the globe, with protests against government policies, pricing of produce, and delayed compensation taking place in more than 65 countries. In India, there have been protests in at least nine states and union territories since 2023.

In the latest flair up, starting on Feb. 13, some 20,000 farmers began marching towards Delhi demanding legal guaranteed prices for all crops, loan waivers, pensions and the doubling of farmers’ incomes. They also want compensation for the kin of farmers who died during the 2020-2021 protest, which were spearheaded by an umbrella body of unions called the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or SKM.

The grievances of the farmers’ unions do not stop there. They oppose the government’s economic and social policies more broadly, explained Darshan Pal, a farmer leader with SKM. Other issues of concern include unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, the privatization of the public sector and threats to India’s democratic norms.

While the government was nervous and forced to repeal the contentious farm laws during the last round of protests, this time the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, remains unruffled. So far, the meetings between the farmers’ unions and the government have ended in deadlocks.

But the campaign, which is entering a more disruptive phase, is far from over.

A Safety Net for Farmers

The protests are primarily focusing on the legal guarantee of minimum support price, or MSP, which would set a floor for the price of 23 commodities. If market prices fall below that floor, the government would buy the produce from farmers at the agreed rate.

“When the previous protests concluded, there were certain things that were agreed upon between the farmers and the government,” said Nachiket Udupa, who works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan — a rights-based organization that struggles for the rights of peasants and laborers. “One was to set up a committee to look into MSP, and that the committee would have a certain number of representatives from the SKM. Subsequently, the government did not do anything for months.”

When the government did set up the committee, he explained, it “moved away from the original terms that were agreed upon. The SKM boycotted the committee and there has been no concrete action on the issue of MSP since the previous protests.”

According to Indian politician and political analyst Yogendra Yadav, the topic is now “firmly back” on the national agenda. The current demand comes from a consensus of unions of farmers cutting across different ideologies and geographical regions.

The context of climate change is also critical to the farmers’ protests. According to the World Bank, more than 80 percent of people live in districts that are seriously affected by climate change. Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and declining groundwater level have had a direct impact on livelihood and food security.

“The MSP demand is related to climate change. While water levels are going down in Punjab, farmers are still cultivating paddy because they get MSP for it,” Udupa said. “The demand is for MSP of all crops, which means farmers would diversify to less water-intensive crops. The present policy is [hindering] farmers from becoming more climate resilient.”

There is an ideological resistance to change from the government, since it believes in the free market ideology. “The status quo works well for people in power,” he said. “The idea that MSP hampers the market and will cause economic catastrophe is completely unfounded.”

Protest 2.0

Since the last round of protests, there has been a change in leadership at the unions. After they won the repeal of the farm laws, the unions fractured over whether they should engage in electoral politics.

Despite the change in leadership and tactics, the core demands remain the same across the factions, said Vikas Rawal from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he specializes in development and agricultural economics.

This year, different factions of the unions organized two major protests. One was a gathering of more than 50,000 farmers in the heart of Delhi’s protest site Ramlila Maidan. The other is the ongoing “Delhi Chalo” movement, which began on Feb. 13, when an estimated 20,000 farmers primarily from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh started marching towards the capital.

As farmers approached Delhi’s borders, some 50,000 police were deployed and the internet was cut off. The Haryana Police installed large barricades, concrete blocks and sharp nails in the roads to stop farmers from entering the national capital. At the barricades, drones dropped tear gas on the farmers, who said rubber bullets were also fired at them. Clashes ensued between farmers and police. One farmer was killed in the violence, despite police claiming they used minimum force.

In a statement in February, Human Rights Watch said that the Indian government was using threats and excessive force to stop farmers from holding peaceful protests.

A petition was filed in India’s Supreme Court alleging that the state used aggressive and violent measures against farmers who were peacefully protesting, preventing them from exercising their democratic rights.

The farmers have learned to be resilient in the face of the state violence that they have already witnessed, said journalist and political scientist Vasundhara Sirnate. In response to the police repression, farmers flew kites to distract drones, wore swimming goggles to protect themselves from tear gas and used tractors to pull down barricades.

Despite facing severe oppression, farmers remain united in protesting against the government. “We will expose, protest and punish the ruling regime who has not only ignored but used repressive measures against protesting farmers,” said Pal, the farmer leader with SKM.

According to Tejveer Singh, a spokesperson for one of the farmer unions, around 10,000 farmers are still sitting at the Shambhu and Khanauri borders in the state of Punjab. Given the lack of progress towards an agreement with the government, the farmers recognize the need to intensify their campaign.

On April 17, they blocked railway tracks near Shambhu border, demanding the release of farmers who have been arrested. The action led to train cancellations and diversions. Farmers have said they will block additional railway tracks in the coming days if their leaders are not freed.

Farmers are also organizing smaller protests at the state-level with other workers’ organizations to keep up the momentum. Going forward, the their unions will run campaigns across villages where they will ask tough questions of party leaders from across the political spectrum. There will be public meetings and marches in the states of Punjab and Haryana, according to the SKM. They have also been bringing attention to other issues like the electoral bond scam, rural agrarian distress and the privatization of the public sector.

With the country’s elections now underway, the BJP — according to Yadav — may be compelled to act.

The Indian National Congress, which is currently the opposition party, “has already responded to the ongoing protests by promising to include the national guarantee for minimum support price if voted to power,” he explained. “There is now pressure on the BJP to respond to the demands in their election manifesto. This shows that the struggle is moving forward.” But he also described the struggle for MSP as a “prolonged battle” that will not be won overnight.

“We will continue to protest till after elections — till our voices are heard,” Singh said.