Unlike in the earlier days when politicians flew in their choppers and landed in distant villages to attract crowds, and, perhaps, voters, the spectacular touchdown on November 16 by the giant Hercules C-130 aircraft that brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a milestone near Sultanpur, UP, on the newly constructed Eastern Highway, evidently failed to enthuse the PM.
First, there were the unsavory images of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath running behind the PM’s car; this lent itself to considerable mirth and speculation in social media about what was happening between Modi and Yogi. Second, a few days later, Modi decided to repeal the three farm laws.
Why did Modi randomly withdraw the farm laws after tenaciously defending it despite a protracted and stoic farmers’ protest for more than 15 months, which resonated across the country? What did he see from the ‘Flying Hercules’ that marked this sudden turn-around? What was it that so rankled him after touching down on the highway?
The BJP believes that losing UP could seriously hurt its chances in 2024, which they just cannot afford, as their government has been particularly nasty towards its opponents. They fear that if they lose in 2024, then a similar fate may visit them too!
These are questions which farmers and many others are furiously speculating. The truth is that Modi took advantage of other reasons — including national security — to repeal a set of laws that had made the BJP politically untenable in states where it is going for elections. For instance, in Punjab and Haryana, which are the epicenters of the farmers’ struggle, BJP parliamentarians and legislators have not been able to visit their constituencies. A similar situation stalks the party and its leaders in Western Uttar Pradesh.
In Western UP, where the BJP had done exceeding well in the past three elections after the unprecedented Muzaffarnagar communal riots in 2013, the relentless and united farmers’ protests had begun to hemorrhage their support base. Despite aggressive anchors of the loyalist media and party supporters raucously claiming that the BJP has been winning the last three elections with a huge margin — making opposition alliances redundant – and that there was no reason why it should not repeat its past performance, the situation on the ground tells a different story.
During a recent visit to UP, this writer found that opposition to the government was deep and stirring, slowly, but surely. People remembered the stark helplessness gripping them as the second killer wave the of deadly corona virus swept through the state. Though government figures show only 22,000 plus dead, this is gross undercounting. A grassroots politician claimed that there were at least five to 25 deaths in every village, and this happened across more than 95,000 villages in UP.
In the cities and towns, it was worse. Images of bodies floating in the Ganga and being buried at the banks of the holy river were just a cruel snapshot of how several rivers, ponds and vacant land in the state had become the disposal site for the uncounted dead. Parks and open spaces in some urban places were also being used for funerals.
Satellite images of cremation grounds alongside various rivers revealed that funeral pyres burnt for days together — a far contrast from normal times. Lucknow’s cremation ground was boarded up and hidden from public view so that the media never gets to pry on how many bodies were being consigned to flames. Indeed, for quite a while, the administration had gone AWOL (absent without leave).
Only after the killer wave subsided that the government actually showed up and so did their massive and expensive advertisement campaigns hailing the exemplary leadership of the CM. Their publicity machinery cranked up to churn out not just large hoardings, but also Whatsapp messages, roadside influencers, and, of course, the omniscient anchors. And all the messages had a common refrain: “Yogijee did not let anyone starve, including those migrants who returned home after losing their jobs.”
Then began the vaccination drive. Paid advertisements promised to achieve impossible targets by a non-existent public health infrastructure. The reality on the ground remained as bitter as ever.
Hundreds of thousands of grief-stricken people, with their angst and anger forcibly buried due to wall-to-wall government propaganda and the fear of the repressive State apparatus, have now begun to reflect on the losses of their dear and loved ones. They are also aware of the stark apathy and insensitivity of the government when such unprecedented mass tragedy and helplessness had stalked the state with an abysmal and crumbling health infrastructure. Now, they can be heard talking about it openly.
MUCH OF THE credit for fighting the fear of the police and state administration has to go to the unrelenting farmers’ resistance in Western UP. Against difficult odds, they stood their ground and did not wilt even after being mowed down by a speeding motorcade of a central minister’s son. The state government may have brazenly protected the perpetrator of the crime till it became impossible, but the incident knocked off the moral veneer of those who tried to show the protestors as ‘anti-nationals and Khalistanis’.
However, unsurprisingly, despite the withdrawal of the three farm laws, many of the ruling party supporters still believe in the earlier narrative that the farm laws were promulgated in national interest and those who opposed it did not have the interest of the nation at heart. This too is reflective of the fact that trapped in the comfort zones of absolute power, they are clearly losing the pulse on the ground.
Though government figures show only 22,000 plus dead, this is gross undercounting. A grassroots politician claimed that there were at least five to 25 deaths in every village, and this happened across more than 95,000 villages in UP.
It is because of this reason that the farmers are not willing to end their agitation. Some of the groups in the non-violent movement are adamant that the protests must continue till the UP elections so that the BJP is not able to bring the farm bills in a new avatar. The swagger of the recent triumph experienced by the farmers may offset these fears, but, truly speaking, no one really trusts this government.
The BJP knows the limitations of the farm bills repeal on its poll prospects. The manner in which it is pulling out all stops, displays its growing anxieties about the UP polls. It believes that losing the state could seriously hurt its chances of returning to power in the parliamentary elections in 2024, which they just cannot afford, as their government has been particularly nasty towards its opponents. They fear that if they lose in 2024, then a similar fate may visit them too!
It is due to this reason that they want to cement their chances before Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav’s juggernaut starts gaining momentum. Akhilesh has been getting rapturous crowds across the state and is increasingly looking chief ministerial. He has cobbled together alliances with regional and caste-based outfits like Jayant Choudhary’s Lok Dal or Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party. There are also rumors that the Congress would eventually do a deal with the SP and fight the elections in an alliance.
SP supporters claim that many bureaucrats have begun to call up Akhilesh Yadav as they believe that the arithmetic of Yadavs, Muslims, farmers, various caste-based organizations, disgruntled communities, and those who suffered so severely during the pandemic, is enough to oust the discredited government of Yogi Adityanath despite his large cut-outs. Indeed, opinion polls are backing this trend.