India’s Farmers’ Movement Helped Thwart Narendra Modi

Amra Ram

Narendra Modi’s plan to win an electoral supermajority ended in failure this month. A communist leader of India’s farmers’ movement explains how their struggle contributed to Modi’s biggest setback since taking power.

Farmers shout slogans against Indian prime minister Narendra Modi during a protest to demand minimum crop prices on the outskirts of Gurdaspur, India, on May 24, 2024. (Narinder Nanu / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Shinzani Jain

The results of India’s national elections, declared on June 4, were humbling for the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Narendra Modi. The BJP, which had been boasting that it could win four hundred or more seats, instead saw its seat share drop from 303 in 2019 to 240 this year and was obliged to form a coalition to remain in power.

The election outcome was significantly influenced by the farmers’ movement, which forced the BJP-led government to suspend its proposed farm laws in 2021. That movement resumed its activity on the eve of the election. The BJP vote declined in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, where the farmers’ movement has been active.

Amra Ram is a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (the CPI[M]) who was elected to the Indian parliament this year for the Sikar constituency in Rajasthan as part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc. He is also a leader of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS, or All India Farmers’ Union), the peasant wing of the CPI(M). He spoke to us about the ongoing impact of the farmers’ movement on Indian politics.

Shinzani Jain

Please tell us about your life and political journey in Rajasthan.

Amra Ram

As a student at Shri Kalyan Government College in Sikar, I worked with the students’ organizations mobilizing on student issues. The Shri Kalyan Government College was the biggest university in Rajasthan, and I was the president of the students’ union there. Then, I was twice elected as the sarpanch (president) of the gram panchayat (village council) in Mundwara in Rajasthan.

After this, I served as a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) four times. In 1993, 1998, and 2003, I was elected from the Dhod constituency of the Rajasthan Assembly. In 2008, I was elected as an MLA for the fourth time from the Danta Ramgarh constituency of the Rajasthan Assembly.

As an MLA, I consistently raised the issues of the farmers, students, farm laborers, workers, and the common people of Rajasthan in the state legislative assembly. When the government ignored our demands, we raised the same issues through movements on the streets. Whether it was the issue of electricity bills, the agitation to demand water supply for irrigation during 2004–05 in which eight farmers were martyred, or the farmers’ agitation during 2017–18, when the government was forced to implement a waiver of the farmers’ loans, we raised these issues in the state legislative assembly as well as on the streets.

I was also involved with the farmers’ movement during 2020–21 against the three farm laws in which the farmers struggled for more than a year. Finally, the Modi government was forced to withdraw the three farm laws. On December 9, 2021, the government assured us that it would enact a law to make minimum support price (MSP) a legal guarantee. However, even to this day, this has not been done.

This farmers’ movement during 2020–21 was historic. The political impact of the movement has been felt strongly in Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab, the regions where we saw massive participation and support.

During the 2014 and 2019 general assembly elections in Rajasthan, all twenty-five seats were won by the NDA coalition led by the BJP. Out of these seats, the opposition won eleven this time. The Sikar constituency, from which I have been elected, is one of these eleven seats.

In Haryana, the opposition has won five out of ten seats. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP), which was part of the INDIA coalition, has won thirty-seven seats. This has been a massive setback for the BJP. After they made lofty claims of winning over four hundred seats, they have just managed to win 240.

Shinzani Jain

Could you give us the background of the farmers’ movement during 2020–21?

Amra Ram

There have been many instances in different parts of the country where the farmers have faced a government backlash for protesting. However, the farmers’ movement started becoming big after farmers were shot in the Mandsaur district in Madhya Pradesh in 2018.

In this agitation, the farmers were raising the issue of low prices for their garlic crops. While the cost of cultivation for the crop was Rs. 100 per kg and the labor employed to cultivate the crop was extraneous, no one was ready to even buy the crops for Rs. 5 per kg. When the farmers demanded fair and remunerative prices for their crops, the BJP government led by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan responded to them with bullets, and six farmers were martyred.

Following this attack, farmers from across the ideological divide from across the country were mobilized by the AIKS to come together in their struggle. A combined movement was built around the issues of prices, land acquisition, and opposition to the government’s three farm laws.

The Indian government attempted to break the movement in different ways. It tried to present the movement as communal, and even labeled the agitating farmers as “Naxalites,” “Maoists,” “hired goons,” or accused them of being “supported by China and Pakistan.” But the farmers persevered and continued to follow the calls of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) [a collective front of farmers’ unions] throughout the country.

The AIKS, which was a national organization, mobilized farmers on the national scale. Finally, the farmers defeated the dictatorial government, and it was forced to withdraw the black laws. However, the written guarantee that the government gave us in December 2021 has still not been implemented.

When the NDA government came to power in 2014, it declared at more than four hundred farmers’ meetings that the farmers would receive MSP, that two crore [twenty million] jobs would be created for young people, and that within one hundred days, all Indians would get lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of rupees in their bank accounts as money from foreign accounts would be brought back to India. Instead of fulfilling these promises, it did the exact opposite. Through these elections, the youth and the farmers have given a response to the government.

Shinzani Jain

Could you please explain to us the nature and extent of the agricultural crisis in the country?

Amra Ram

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India adopted the policies of liberalization and privatization inspired by US imperialism. Following this turn toward liberalization and opening up of markets, all the production and procurement of agricultural inputs used by the farmers — seeds, manure, pesticides, insecticides, diesel — was allotted to agribusinesses and multinational corporations. This has been done not only in India but across the world.

As a result of these policies, the farmers continued to become indebted. Drowning in debt, they started committing suicide in huge numbers. The youth of the country became unemployed, and businesses were destroyed. The liberalization model also promoted agricultural imports and the prices offered to the farmers declined. Large corporations and agribusinesses prospered, and the farmers fell into a cycle of indebtedness.

The increasing prices of agricultural produce affected farmers across the country, whether they were cultivating food grains, vegetables, fruits, or cash crops like cashews and raisins. The cost of cultivating all kinds of crops increased sharply, and the farmers were not even earning enough to cover the costs they incurred. The farmers had no option but to protest.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund wanted farmers to be ousted from agriculture. They wanted the agricultural sector to be dominated by large agri-corporations, with farmers becoming wage laborers for these corporations. As a result of these policies of liberalization and privatization, farmers are agitating across the world, not only in India, but in European countries as well.

Shinzani Jain

How did the farmers’ movement appeal to the people from other sectors and the urban population?

Amra Ram

The farm laws were not only detrimental to the agricultural sector and the people employed within it. The idea behind these laws was to allow the hoarding of agricultural produce so as to rob not only the farmers but also the people as a whole. The movement was also against the plunder of big corporations like Adani and Ambani and against the toll mafia run by giants such as the Reliance Group. For a whole year, tolls were waived, and the common man benefitted from this struggle.

Even before the enactment of the farm laws, the situation of the farmers was desperate, as they were not getting remunerative prices. Imagine the situation of the people after the implementation of laws allowing for the hoarding of food grains and other essential crops even at the time of an emergency. Naturally, this would impact not only the farmers but also the workers of the country.

This movement was fought not only by the farmers but also by Indian workers. Ultimately, the movement took shape as a “people’s movement,” and the result was that the dictator heading the government, who never listened to anybody before, had to bow his head before the unity of this movement.

Shinzani Jain

What have we learned about the impact of people’s movements on electoral outcomes from this movement?

Amra Ram

We saw that all the farmers’ groups with different flags, ideologies, and leaders came together to fight. In addition, the communist and secular forces that fought the elections separately in 2014 and 2019 fought together this time and brought the BJP down to 240 seats from 303 seats last time.

In India, even to this day, the majority of voters are within the agricultural sector, whether as farmers or as rural wage laborers. The majority of voters have now understood that behind their troubles is the government led by the BJP. Wherever there is a mass movement, we see that electoral outcomes are affected by it.

This time, we have seen that those who were claiming they would win 370 or even more than four hundred seats have not even managed to win 270. I believe that this blow to the BJP, despite all of its undemocratic efforts at meddling with free and fair elections, is a people’s mandate against its laws.

We understand that the opposition has still not been able to form a government. But the number of opposition-held seats has doubled. The Indian National Congress has increased its number of seats to one hundred, nearly twice as many as before, while the SP from Uttar Pradesh, which is the biggest state with the largest number of constituencies, has gone from five to thirty-seven seats. From now on, any government will hesitate before messing with the farmers of the country.

Shinzani Jain

What are the long-term goals of the farmers’ movement? What issues will you raise in the parliament and beyond?

Amra Ram

Before the general elections were declared, farmers from Punjab started marching toward Delhi. However, stringent measures were taken to stop them from proceeding beyond the Haryana border. Despite the barriers, the farmers did not retreat. They were back again to fight for their demands.

The government did not fulfil the promises made to the farmers in December 2021. The 2020 Electricity Bill, which was one of the contentious issues during the farmers’ protests, has been passed in the form of this year’s Electricity (Amendment) Act. Under the new law, the contract for electricity generation and distribution will be granted to large corporations. This means that electricity will now be available only to the rich and not the poor of this country.

The future course for this movement is not only for the farmers to raise their issues in the parliament, but to continue their struggle on the streets. Even in December 2021, the movement was merely paused on account of the promises made by the government. In February 2024, the farmers resumed the movement, and a big rally was held at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi.

The farmers from Punjab are still protesting at the Punjab-Haryana border. Over the last year, the government tried its best to break this coalition of farmers’ groups. However, it failed miserably. As long as the farmers and peasants of the country are in crisis, the movement will not end. They will try to break us, and perhaps they will be successful in winning over one or two farm leaders, but they will not be able to break the unity of the farmers.

This is the first time in my life that I have witnessed such unity among the farmers and the workers of the country. Previously, the farmers asked us why they should be concerned about workers’ issues and vice versa. This is the first time that farmers and workers have understood that these policies will only be overturned if they fight together.

Not only the farmers and workers but even the youth of the country are fighting together now. We will continue to struggle and strengthen the movement, not only in India but also across the world, until we succeed in bringing about structural change.