Jubilation at Singhu border as farmers celebrate BJP’s defeat in West Bengal elections

Farmer leaders participating in a “No Vote to BJP” rally in Kolkata on 10 March 2021. The campaign by the farmers called upon West Bengal’s electorate to vote for any party other than the BJP. Following the Trinamool Congress’s victory in the polls, there was triumphant celebration at the Singhu farmers’ protest site on the Delhi-Haryana border. Debarchan Chatterjee/NurPhoto/Getty Images
04 May, 2021

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.

Avik Saha, the organising secretary of the AIKSCC, had stayed in West Bengal for 45 days during the election campaign, and played a key role in scheduling the public meetings of the farmer leaders. “In the Bengal campaign, I can tell you that in the areas where we held mahapanchayats, the BJP has lost,” Saha said, listing the constituencies of Singhur, Asansol Uttar and Kolkata Port. There are clear exceptions to this—the TMC chief Banerjee lost in Nandigram, and BJP’s Agnimitra Paul won the Asansol Dakshin constituency.

“We had distributed five lakh pamphlets to explain the rationale for our presence in West Bengal, since we were neither contesting the elections nor were a political party,” Saha told me. “Though the BJP tried very hard to keep away the Delhi’s farmers’ movement issue away from the West Bengal elections, we succeeded in giving the people a real-life presentation of what they have been watching on television and reading in newspapers about the movement.” Saha continued, “Many of these leaders like Tikait, Yogendra Yadav and Gurnam Singh Chaduni were known by their faces, and the voters suddenly watched them addressing a rally in a school ground. And the people also knew that these farmers and leaders were sitting in Delhi for their rights for four months by then, and there was not much needed to explain further.”

On 4 December 2020, months ahead of the West Bengal assembly polls, the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee had sent the party’s Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien to Singhu, the site of the ongoing farmers’ protest on the Delhi-Haryana border. In a telephonic conversation with farmer leaders at Singhu, Banerjee extended her support to the farmers’ fight against the three farm laws. After O’Brien’s visit in December last year, Banerjee had tweeted her support for their cause. The TMC had also issued a press release that day, noting that “the CM has spoken to the farmers over phone,” and that they “expressed their gratitude for all her support to farmers and land movements in the past.” In the months that followed, many senior farmer leaders took an active part in the campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But Saha made it clear that the farmers’ campaign against the BJP had nothing to do with O’Brien’s visit to Singhu. He described the visit as one “like any other leader visiting that place out of curiosity and surprise to see how the farmers have been able to sustain themselves there for days together in such huge numbers.” Saha added, “It was more or less like a pilgrimage for every politician from opposition fronts as we were their fellow warriors.”

On 3 May, the SKM released a press note with headline, “Election results are the consequences of heavy anger of farmers and labourers.” The press note stated, “The BJP only understands the language of elections and hence the farmers campaigned against the BJP in the state assembly elections. It is a result of people’s respect for the farmers and belief in Samyukta Kisan Morcha that the BJP has suffered a bad defeat in the assembly elections.”

The statement continued, “We again warn the BJP government that if the government does not agree to our demands then the BJP will face strong opposition and will not run any election in any part of the country. Farmers, labourers and struggling people of the country are now united in this struggle.” The SKM also made it clear that the farmers were not giving up on their demand for the repeal of the three farm laws, and that their protest would continue. “After the election results came out yesterday, farm unions leaders thanked the people of the country who made the ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign of SKM successful,” the press note stated. “Now, this energy needs to be directed towards strengthening the farmer movement. This movement will be intensified along with taking necessary precautions in the Corona pandemic. We appeal to the farmers and common citizens of the country to maintain full cooperation in the protest as they are continuously doing.”

It is worth noting that though the BJP won only 77 seats in the assembly despite asserting that they would win the state, it is still a massive jump from the three seats they won in 2016. More importantly, the BJP had received a 40 percent vote share in the 2019 elections, and managed to a secure 38 percent of the votes in this year’s assembly elections. But these details did not dampen the spirits at the Singhu border, where Rajewal described scenes of celebration sweeping the protest site. “People here are performing bhangra, congratulating each other, distributing sweets,” he said.