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PLOUGHING A LONELY FURROW

At 82, Anna Hazare is still espousing a variety of causes, though without the massive popular support he had seven years ago. Considering his deteriorating health, this fast for farmers’ rights may be his last  

Around two in the noon, on Wednesday, teachers and students from Delhi University were marching towards Parliament Street protesting against the University Grants Commission’s latest moves. There were no less than 1,000 protestors on the street.

A few kilometres away, Anna Hazare was observing the fifth day of his hunger strike at the historic Ramlila ground. With barely 700 people – mostly farmers – the tent wore almost a deserted look. Barely four or five TV news channel cameras were waiting for some action. Till his doctor Dhananjay Pote informed the media that Hazare’s health is critical and he has been asked not to speak.

The thin attendance his hunger strike unto death is a sign of waning popularity. Unlike 2011, when his call attracted thousands of protestors from Delhi and other parts of the country — and almost the entire media fraternity stationed themselves at the protest venue – the portents are clear.

Known to be a veteran protestor, Hazare himself is to be blamed for this poor show until the fifth day. He had declared the date of the protest without keeping the stakeholders in the loop. Dogged by bad planning, poor coordination with farmers’ organisations, an inexperienced core team, it offers a poor contrast to the spectacular farmers’ march from Nashik to Mumbai mid-March.

Hazare is trying to put pressure on the central government to bring three systemic changes – a consolidated policy for farmers, the appointment of Lok Pal and electoral reforms. While the central government has assured the 82-year-old activist that it will take all possible steps to fulfil his demands, it is yet to give any written assurance. Importantly, the BJP-led central government has played smart and safe so far. Instead of sending a representative from the central government, the BJP sent Maharashtra minister Girish Mahajan to initiate the talks on Monday. It was also a subtle message that the BJP wants to dub Hazare’s protest as a state issue and not a typical Anna national protest.

However, Punjab’s Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta-Sidhupur (BKUES) and Madhya Pradesh’s Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (RKMS) are the most active participants. They are part of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (RKMS), an association of 50 farmers’ bodies. However, the RKM senior leader told Newslaundry that only three to four have taken part in the protest.

“We got in touch with Annaji only on 21 March. The timing of the protest is utterly wrong,” Shiv Kumar Sharma, RKM convenor and chief of RKMS told Newslaundry. “It is harvesting time for the farmers from the bordering states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Haryana. You can’t ask farmers to leave their crops in the field and join any protest.” Sharma mentioned that these issues were raised with Hazare too.

PN Kalki from Hazare’s core team says that they do realise that the timing of the protest is odd: “He had decided the date in October last year itself. The only option left was to coordinate with farmers’ organisations and ensure a good turnout.” The 24-member core team of Hazare’s new NGO – Bhrashtachar Virdohi Jan Andolan Nyas (BVJAN) – was formed only in January 2018. That too, with lesser-known faces. Clearly, this inexperienced team failed to rope in farmers’ bodies.

RKM’s Sharma also pointed at Hazare’s charter of demands, saying it is not in sync with farmers bodies’ demands. “Inke demands bhi atram shatram hain. Kisan sanghtano se baat karke agar mudde decide kiye gaye hote to ye demands alag tarah ke hote (Their demands are haywire. Have they had consulted farmers’ organisations, the list of demands would have been different.” Sharma added that ‘NGO type people’ convinced Anna to come to Delhi — and see what the result is.

Hazare has put out a four-point demand for farmers, including making the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) a constitutional body and independent from government influences. He wants Rs 5,000 pension for 60-plus farmers who are solely dependent on agriculture. The third demand is to calculate the minimum support price on C3+50 per cent formula, that is, investment plus labour cost plus interest on the capital invested, then add 50 per cent of the total of these three. Fourth demand is to provide individual insurance for crops of each farmer.

When Kalki is asked about the process of deciding demands, he says, “Anna has his own style of working and thought process.” This protest took shape as follows: “On October 2 (2017) Anna came to Rajghat and decided to launch a big mobilisation. A workshop was organised on October 6-7 in Ralegaon Siddhi in which over 70 people participated. During the discussion, these three issues were decided,” Kalki said.

Another core team member, on condition of anonymity, told Newslaundry, Bhawano mein aa kar unhone decision le liya ki Bhagat Singh ki Shaheedi Diwas par ansaan par baithenge.Mujhe lagta hai unko laga ki ye unke jeevan ke antim andolano mein se ek honga – health issues ye kuch unfortunate ho use accha hai ki ya to vyavastha parivartan kar dein ya andolan mein hi Shaheed ho jaen (The decision to go on hunger strike on Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom day was driven by emotions. I believe he must have thought that either he will bring major systemic changes or shall sacrifice his life.) It was communicated to Anna that the date fell in the harvesting season and he was requested to either defer the protest or do it in February. However, organisers said that the movement is expected to gain momentum from Thursday when farmers from MP and Punjab are likely to join in large numbers.

Hazare’s list of demands from the powers-that-be is still long. He is also pressing for electoral reforms, including replacing political party symbols with the contesting candidates’ photo in the EVM. The idea is that it would reduce the importance of political parties in electoral democracy. He also pressed for declaring NOTA as a vote for the right to reject. He has re-emphasised on Right to Recall power – which was being discussed during the India Against Corruption movement.

Sadly, Hazare’s continued attack on political forums and clear stand that he will not allow politically affiliated wings to join his protest are proving detrimental. Ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power, all successful movements of farmers and peasants were led by a united front of the politically affiliated and non-political wings. Right from the agitation against the land acquisition bill to the protests led by All India People’s Forum — each had a united front fighting against the Central government policies. Even Yogendra Yadav’s farmers’ coordination committee was successful in bringing thousands of farmers on Delhi’s streets. The recent successful farmers’ protest in Maharashtra too was led by farmers’ wing of Communist parties. Saying no to these organisations, especially the Left-leaning bodies, means lesser mobilisation on the ground.

The rise of Arvind Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi Party’s formation from the movement led by Hazare has left him scarred. “He wants to remove that guilt, that tag of Kejriwal from his sleeves. That is the reason Anna is against any political body joining this hunger strike,” said a core team member. However, he did admit they are paying the price for taking this stand.

Even if the farmers’ bodies eventually become successful in drawing large numbers at Ramlila, there is no denying that Anna has been reduced to a shadow of his former profile.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.