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Will the Indian Farmers’ Movement Successfully Transition From Protests to Polls?

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Will the Indian Farmers’ Movement Successfully Transition From Protests to Polls?

The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, which emerged from the farmers’ movement, is in the fray in upcoming state assembly elections in Punjab.

Will the Indian Farmers’ Movement Successfully Transition From Protests to Polls?

A group of women shout slogans as they arrive to join protesting farmers at the border between Delhi and Haryana state, Tuesday, December 1, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

India’s powerful farmers’ movement, which successfully forced the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to withdraw three controversial farm laws in November last year, has thrown its hat now in the electoral ring. Will it be able to transform itself from a social movement to a successful political party like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has met with remarkable electoral success in the short period of its existence? Or will it be forced to remain in agitational politics?

Of the five states that will begin voting in state assembly elections soon, the farmers’ movement is expected to have some impact on the outcome in three states — Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand.

In Punjab, it has 104 candidates in the fray. However, since the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), the political party that was formed out of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), which led the farmers’ protest against the farm laws, has not registered itself yet with the Election Commission, its candidates will contest as independents.

The SSM promises a clean and transparent government while presenting itself as a viable alternative highlighting the failures of traditional parties in the state. How successful will it be in the field of ballot box politics?

India’s animated political arena is driven by changing socio-political dynamics and a challenging policy landscape. In this regard, both social movements and political parties play vital and often complementary roles in articulation and intermediation of political interest, albeit in differing capacities.

The interactions between movements and parties have had a tremendous impact over Indian history. The relationships between movements and parties have been central to Indian democratization, with India’s oldest party, the Indian National Congress, emerging out of the Indian independence movement.

So parties emerging out of successful social movements is not a new phenomenon in India.

The Case of the Aam Aadmi Party

In the beginning of the last decade, a new political party emerged in India out of a mass movement against corruption. The Aam Aadmi Party rose out of India Against Corruption (IAC), a series of mass protests across India that began in 2011 under the leadership of Anna Hazare and his deputy, Arvind Kejriwal, a former bureaucrat-turned-activist.

The movement demanded a strong mechanism — a Jan Lokpal — to investigate and eliminate corruption in politics and the bureaucracy, with minimal government interference. It received remarkable public support and participation.

In November 2012, a section of the IAC launched a political party — the AAP, with the goal of representing the “aam aadmi” or “common people.” The party’s name and message drew attention not only to other parties’ failure to represent the common woman and man but also to the AAP’s origins in a collective movement.

AAP as a political force made an impressive debut by holding on to the momentum generated by the IAC. In the Delhi state assembly election in 2013 it won 28 of the 70 seats. Though it was a short-lived government, AAP’s vote share was 30 percent, an exceptional performance as very few parties in the past had met with such success in their first outing in electoral politics.

In the 2015 Delhi assembly election, AAP roared back to power, winning 67 seats. It followed that up by winning 62 seats in the 2020 assembly election. The party has successfully captured power in every election it has contested in Delhi over the past decade. However it has had little electoral success in other states.

Can SSM Ride the Success of the Farmers’ Movement?

It is interesting to note that SSM chose not to use the term “party” in its name but called itself a morcha or front, indicating that it is a coalition of farmers’ unions as well as endorsing the spirit of the movement from which it rose. This emblematic strategy can be beneficial to sustain the goodwill generated during the farmers’ movement and translate it into votes.

The newly formed political front also aims to expand its support base beyond farmers by fielding a diverse list of candidates that includes professors, doctors, lawyers, agriculturists, and activists.

Carrying a social movement and navigating the electoral terrain have different objectives and therefore require different skill-sets.

There are many factors therefore that can work against the SSM. Many farmers’ unions are unhappy with the formation of the party and have decided not to join them, resulting in a divided and weak reach. Other obstacles in its way are logistical constraints and the limited time it has to transform itself from a movement into a political group participating in electoral competition. It can therefore come across as inexperienced, with little organizational structure to the voters.

It is yet to be seen if the newly formed party can find success in elections as AAP did in Delhi. However, it can be estimated that with the emergence of new political players and newer alliances, the Punjab assembly elections will be far more contentious than before. Punjab, a state that witnessed a two-party competition till 2012, will now see a pentagonal contest. This increasing political competition can easily result in greater fragmentation of the vote. Many opinion polls and surveys are predicting a hung assembly in Punjab. Even if the SSM does not win seats, it would be a victory for the party if it is able to win a decent share of votes.

Shift From a Movement to a Party

One question that remains is: Why are new political parties emerging out of social movements?

When political parties are inattentive to social change it spurs new actors into collective action to implement, resist, or undo a particular change. So why do these participants sometimes transition from a movement to a political party?

Social movements are sustained for short periods of time and are limited in their spatio-temporal reach. They build little organizational structure to solve problems of collective action. However, political parties have a definite organizational structure and membership roles for realizing their party ideology, policies, and programs.

Therefore, one reason for the shift of a collective movement to the institutional site of partisan electoral competition is the motivation to craft a sustained and spatially extensive mobilization. Participants of movements recognize that the salient goals of collective mobilization amount not to a one-time collective decision but require continuous advancement and revision of particular goals. For instance, the issue of corruption turned into that of transparency and governance promised by AAP, and the issue of overlooked interests of farmers turned into the issue of authoritative policymaking claimed by SSM.

The upcoming assembly elections will reveal the impact of the two parties, AAP and SSM, which emerged from popular movements. Results will provide pointers to SSM’s future in Indian politics as well as decide if the AAP will succeed in advancing toward a pan-India footprint.

It may also bring us closer to answering one more interesting question: Are electoral politics more effective than a non-parliamentary struggle in fulfilling the goals of a mass movement?