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The symbolism of Muzaffarnagar

The Panchayat Signals Social Mobilisation, An Attempt To Weave Together An Alliance Of Farmers And Organised Sector Workers And Unions, Opposed To Moves Such As The Monetisation Of Public Assets And Privatisation. Will It Translate Into Political Strength

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On Sunday, farm unions, demanding a repeal of three farm laws, organised a kisan mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar in west Uttar Pradesh (UP). The choice of location had an obvious political subtext. West UP is a stronghold of Jats — who have been at the forefront of the protests along with predominantly Sikh farmers from Punjab. West UP is also the home of Rakesh Tikait, who after a range of short-term political dalliances with a range of political formations, has found strength by returning to issues concerning agriculture that catapulted his father, Mahendra Singh Tikait, to prominence. The fact that Muzaffarnagar was the site of communal violence in 2013, which benefited the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made it a symbolic site for an agitation against the BJP. But above all, it sent a clear signal that what began as a social movement, rooted in economic grievances, had now acquired a salient political character — with the stated aim of defeating the BJP in the UP assembly elections of 2022.

There is an immediate electoral calculus. For both farm unions, and the wider non-BJP Opposition, the movement represents an opportunity to break the BJP’s social alliance in the state. If Jats break away in west UP, and Jats and Muslims vote for the same formation, it will have a tangible impact in at least 24 assembly seats. But it is premature to conclude that this will happen. The BJP’s ability to win over crucial vote segments in the run-up to the elections, particularly in the last few weeks before polling, is impressive. In both 2017 and 2019, Jats expressed disenchantment with the BJP, but eventually, a large segment voted for the party. Any kind of Jat consolidation against the BJP could well lead to a non-Jat consolidation in favour of the BJP. The communal divide has not gone away. And the movement still does not have a political vehicle — Mr Tikait has a track record of electoral setbacks, Jats have been sceptical of the Samajwadi Party, and the Rashtriya Lok Dal remains weak.

The Muzaffarnagar panchayat also was an attempt to weave together an alliance of farmers and organised sector workers and unions, opposed to moves such as the monetisation of public assets and privatisation. This suggests the emergence of new political economy fault lines, but a reminder is in order. Rarely, if ever, have workers and farmers — both heterogeneous categories — successfully come together against a ruling party at the Centre. Muzaffarnagar is a symbol, but also a test.