Mumbai is currently in a state of chaos. More than 30,000 farmers under the aegis of the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha (also the All-India Kisan Sabha or the AIKS) have marched 180 km from Nashik for almost a week to gather at Azad Maidan.
Their demands are simple. They include the transfer of forest land to their name because they have been tilling it for decades now. Better minimum support price (MSP) for their produce, and a complete no-conditions loan waiver are some of the other demands.
While the Maharashtra government, where the BJP is in power, has said it is ready to talk to the farmers' representatives, there is a separate political undercurrent to this Kisan Long March. Seen broadly, it is a desperate bid by the Left parties in general and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M or CPM) in particular to stay politically relevant in India.
The politics of Long March
According to the AIKS, more than four lakh farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995, of whom around 76,000 were from Maharashtra.
The AIKS is a farmers' collective associated with the CPI-M, which essentially leads the Left parties in India. As a result, the Long March itself is replete with the sickle-hammer-star flag of the Leftist party.
However, what is interesting is people from other parties have also lent their support to the march. In fact, the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and even the Shiv Sena — a long-time ally of the BJP — threw their weight behind the march a day before the protesters entered Mumbai. Even actors and celebrities expressed solidarity with the farmers.
The immediate goal is simple. The BJP-ruled government in the state will never say "no" to the farmers' demands because that would make it appear anti-poor. In fact, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has even said that his government was "positive" on "fulfilling [the] demands" of these farmers.
He even said in the state Assembly that the government was looking to fulfill these demands in a time-bound manner.
Once the farmers have what they demand — or at least part of it — the CPM will project itself as a champion of the farmers' cause.
And that is crucially important for a party that has been restricted to power in a single state — Kerala — in India. Mamata Banerjee drove it out of power from West Bengal in 2011, while the BJP dethroned it in Tripura last month.
Political opportunity in farmers' plight
Farmers have been seeing a lot of downturn in the current decade, according to an article written for the Economic and Political Weekly by Himanshu, associate professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning under the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Citing a policy paper written for the Niti Aayog, Himanshu wrote: "The growth rate of agriculture during the term of the present government has declined to 1.86 percent per annum, almost half of what was achieved during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) period."
The agriculture growth rate between 2011-12 and 2013-14 — the UPA period Himanshu was referring to — was 3.5 percent. In both cases, the data is said to be from the Central Statistics Office under the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation.
This data can be used by the BJP's political rivals to corner it and get some electoral advantage, something that the Left parties will be desperate for.
With a steadily reducing political influence, the Left parties will look to farmers' protests as a golden opportunity to claw back some lost land. And it may be looking to do so as early as this year itself and in another BJP-ruled state.
Madhya Pradesh — where Assembly elections are due later this year — has seen farmer protests over the past year, which only grew in stature after a police firing on some protesters led to the death of five. The CPM will look to champion the cause of farmers there as well, and it will come as no surprise if the Congress and other parties join it in an effort to unseat the saffron party in the state.
(The views expressed are personal.)