In early March, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella outfit of farmers’ groups, had kicked off a “No Vote to BJP” campaign in West Bengal. As part of the campaign, Balbir Singh Rajewal, a veteran farmer leader from Punjab, addressed a press conference before a mahapanchayat in Kolkata on 12 March. “We are not asking you to support any particular party,” Rajewal said. “We are only appealing to the people of Bengal to vote against the BJP because it is against farmers’ interests. Vote for any other party.” On 2 May this year, as the results revealed a massive victory for the Trinamool Congress, the farmers at the Singhu protest site on the Delhi-Haryana border rejoiced. “It is being said that the Jatts have brought Mamata her victory,” Dharminder Singh, one of the farmers at Singhu called me at around 4 pm on 2 May to tell me. “We are about to cook pakoras now, you come over.”
After an eight-phased election that continued for over a month, Trinamool Congress won the assembly elections on 2 May with an overwhelming majority of 213 of the total 280 seats. That evening, after I informed Dharminder that I would not be able to join him at Singhu, he handed over his phone to Satnam Singh Ajnala, the general secretary of the Punjab-based farmer union Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, which was part of the SKM contingent in Kolkata. Ajnala was overjoyed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat. “When we were there, we could read their faces that they won’t at least allow the BJP to win,” he said. “We had told them in our campaign that the BJP was a fascist party and it divides the people on communal lines, besides allowing the corporate sector to ruin the farmers of the country.”
In the days and weeks following the mahapanchayat in Kolkata, the farmers’ “No Vote to BJP” campaign witnessed several similar protests and events held across the state. Two days later, on 14 March, the farmer leader Rakesh Tikait addressed a mahapanchayat in Nandigram. The TMC chief Mamata Banerjee fought and ultimately lost from Nandigram to the former TMC leader Suvendu Adhikari, who switched to the BJP. “When the government of India is not scared of over five lakh people at the Delhi borders, who have built permanent houses on the roads there, imagine what games will be played by the government and what will happen in Bengal,” Tikait told the crowd.
“Our morcha has been able to kindle a political polarisation against the BJP,” Ajnala told me. “The BJP played a political gamble, as they broke away the TMC candidates, resorted to violence, used money,” Ajnala said. “People here are so happy because of the BJP’s defeat—who has won is secondary, the satisfaction we have now is that BJP suffered a humiliating defeat in Bengal.” The BJP’s growth in the state had been phenomenal, going from winning just three assembly seats in the 2016 state elections, to securing 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general elections. These 42 parliamentary seats roughly covered 128 assembly constituencies, and the BJP had proclaimed great confidence about securing a majority in the run-up to the counting day.
“The people have shown the impact of our highly emotional appeal,” Rajewal said. “Mamata is coming to power for the third time—it is good and the Modi government should learn a lesson that opposing the farmers would always cost them dearly. We were focussed on the BJP’s defeat, there were cadres from the Left parties also in our protests staged in Bengal. We left it to the people of Bengal to elect their own government other than the BJP.” Rajewal added that the farm leaders had taken a conscious decision to not campaign in favour of any particular party, because it would have made it easier for the BJP to dismiss them. “We never gave any chance to the BJP to say that we came to help out any particular party, as that would have narrowed down our campaign,” he explained.