Ratna and Nadim Siraj
New Delhi, June 5, 2021: An anti-government protest movement starts in a couple of states in India.
The movement’s leaders target certain policies of the central government, calling them anti-people.
The movement snowballs. It starts drawing eyeballs nationwide.
Soon, there are blockades, strikes, protests, rallies – and a constant push-back by police.
The government stays adamant. It refuses to give in to the demands.
The protest leaders vow to fight on. They start demanding that the country’s leader resign.
They approach regional political parties and help them defy the centre.
The movement keeps growing…
It reads like the script from the ongoing farmers’ protest at Delhi’s borders, right?
Well, it’s actually the script from the famous ‘JP Movement’ that had rocked India back in the 1970s.
SAME SCRIPT, 40 YEARS APART
The two epic movements are over 40 years apart. Yet, they are strikingly similar.
In fact, some parts of the two scripts are not just similar, but almost identical.
The JP Movement, also dubbed as ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ (Total Revolution), marked several firsts for a politically independent India.
The movement was born in Bihar with students seeking education reform and end of corruption in government circles.
Led by the charismatic social activist Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar, the protests began to draw support from Gujarat as well. Soon after, other states joined in.
In no time, it swelled into a gigantic tsunami in 1974, directing its ire towards its ultimate target – Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The movement’s final goal was loud and clear: Indira must resign as PM.
Facing a towering wall of protests – and stung by a court order striking down her PM role as illegal – Indira single-handedly sank India into ‘Emergency’ for two long years.
From 1975 to 1977, modern Indians had their first taste of autocracy under the fancy name of ‘Emergency’. Finally, later that year, Indira was forced to end the autocratic rule and hold general elections.
The protest movement smelled blood, weaving together a political front called the Janata Party.
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The Janata alliance went on to dethrone the mighty Congress – and Indira as well – in a national election and formed India’s first ever non-Congress government.
Morarji Desai was handpicked by the party’s leadership to be the PM, who was later briefly succeeded by Charan Singh before the party disintegrated in as spectacular a fashion as it was born.
Indira had the last laugh, winning back the PM’s job in the next election.
The Janata Party later fizzled out, but the JP Movement’s legacy became immortal.
THE MISSION NOW: A NEW PARTY?
The question is, will the ongoing farmers’ protest also evolve into a political front along the lines of the Janata Party and take on the Narendra Modi government in a ballot box duel?
Will it team up with Bengal-based political champ Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) Party to form a grand alliance?
The jury is out. But one thing is clear from what has unfolded so far. The movement has definitely followed in the footsteps of the iconic 1970s movement.
The JP Movement had begun with students and later found the support of people from all walks of life. The initial protests had started in Bihar and Gujarat before becoming pan-India.
Likewise, the current agitation was started by farmers and it has by now thrown its doors open to the public.
The initial protests sparked off in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Now, they are widening their reach, eyeing other states.
JP’s demands, in the initial days, were education reform and a crackdown on corruption in government. They were later expanded to include calls for Indira’s resignation.
The current protest movement, led by UP-based farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, started off by calling on the government to scrap farming deregulation laws introduced in 2020.
His demands haven’t yet been widened to directly include a call seeking PM Modi’s resignation. But on social media, the movement’s fans are increasingly taking that path.
The month of April was crucial in this regard.
With the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic ravaging the country, a huge chunk of fans of the farmers’ protest took to social media to call for Modi’s resignation.
Even if indirectly, this uprising – just like the JP Movement – slowly seems to be headed towards demanding the ouster of India’s political leadership.
The immediate grouse against the government is – it failed to tackle the horrific oxygen crisis when the pandemic’s second wave tortured India.
JP THEN, TIKAIT NOW
Yet another similarity between the two movements lies in the tactics adopted by their main leaders.
After spending months building a support base in just Bihar and later in Gujarat, Jayaprakash Narayan took the big leap, crisscrossing the country to amass nationwide support.
After all, it wasn’t possible to take on a political leader of Indira’s stature by just focusing on a couple of states.
In exactly the same way, Rakesh Tikait is making that big leap of going national.
In the initial days, he was primarily the face of the protest site at the Delhi-UP border in Ghazipur.
He was hardly seen as someone who could be the face of the overall movement.
TEARS TURN THE TIDE
January 26 this year turned out to have a butterfly effect on Tikait’s stature in the agitation.
On that chaotic day, hours after the protesting farmers stormed Delhi’s Lal Quila (Red Fort) on tractors in a departure from their original plan, an attempted night-time police crackdown at the Ghazipur protest camp saw a teary-eyed Tikait stonewall, stand firm, and emerge unscathed.
TV cameras and social media videos zoomed into his eyes, catching the beads of tears rolling down his cheeks.
The optics acted as a trigger, making hundreds of thousands of new supporters from the villages of Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere rush to Ghazipur to stand by him.
A few hectic weeks later, ‘Rakesh Tikait’ had become a household name.
He was the face of dissidence, and clearly the most important man in the movement’s leadership. He had leapfrogged other leaders such as Gurnam Singh Chaduni.
THE PAN-INDIA PLAN
Up until the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic struck the Indian heartland in early summer of 2021, Tikait held a flurry of nationwide road-shows and mass gatherings.
He called them ‘Mahapanchayats’.
He addressed large crowds in at least seven states – UP, Haryana, Punjab, Bengal, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh.
Indeed, just like the JP Movement went far and wide with Jayaprakash Narayan’s crisscrossing tours, Tikait, too, has been steering the bandwagon across the length and breadth of India.
The grit, manner and style with which protesters from the two movements held on to their demands are also comparable, if not identical.
During the JP Movement, when Indira rolled out two years of autocracy, cracking down on the leadership, the protesters didn’t disperse.
Instead, they played the waiting game to perfection.
When the autocratic reign ended and the imprisoned leaders were released, the protesters rallied behind their leaders’ decision to form the Janata Party.
Fans backed the party to the hilt, and it won the historic 1977 election.
In much the same way, despite a deadly pandemic scorching the country and with the government determined not to give in to the farmers’ demands, the protesting farmers have decided to play the same waiting game.
They have turned the protest sites surrounding Delhi into ‘mini-civilisations’.
Tikait himself has started to openly refer to the protest sites as ‘gaon’, or villages.
Many of their ‘residents’ have openly vowed to hang tight till 2024 – when the general election will be round the corner.
TIKAIT AS ‘JP’ AND MAMATA AS ‘PRIME MINISTER’?
Coming to the topic of the 2024 general election, the million-dollar question is: Will the farmers’ movement become a political party?
Will we see a second Janata Party led by Rakesh Tikait?
Will Tikait pair up with Mamata Banerjee – a BJP slayer – to form a broad political alliance in a ballot box war with Modi’s BJP?
Will Tikait & Co storm to power in 2024 – just like the Janata Party did in 1977?
Mamata Banerjee as the Prime Minister, Rakesh Tikait as her Man Friday, other regional political stars as their trusted cabinet aides – are we thinking too far ahead?
In politics, answers to such questions don’t come easily.
Not just because the stakeholders are reluctant about it.
But often because they genuinely don’t know which way things will turn.
Tikait, who turned 52 on June 4, has often been asked if he considers an electoral road.
He’s consistently maintained that only the movement and its demands are on his mind right now. Nothing else is.
Yet, until the pandemic’s second wave struck India, he’d been dashing from one mass gathering to another, calling on people to drive the BJP out of power during various state elections.
Some will argue that if Tikait is hell-bent on not taking to politics, he wouldn’t have taken the trouble of shuttling away from his protest base in Delhi, and campaigning at faraway state election battlegrounds.
NO STRANGER TO POLITICS
Tikait isn’t a complete stranger to politics, having twice thrown his hat in the ring – unsuccessfully so – in an assembly election and a general election from his home state of Uttar Pradesh.
He’s been on that road. Just that he’s walked less and tripped more. But then that’s how things start.
Given the guile, audacity, charm and tact with which he’s so far ridden the ongoing pro-farmer wave, irrespective of what’s on his mind, it’s amply clear that he’s already built up the political capital required to launch a party.
‘1977’ in 2024?
The defining year of 2024 isn’t as near as it seems.
Just like the protesting farmers, we have to play the waiting game, too, to know if India will get Janata Party 2.0, and if a Tikait-Mamata alliance will dethrone the saffron juggernaut.
In the days and months to come, all we can do is to look out for a hint here, a giveaway there from Tikait’s activities.
The man’s lips will be sealed. But JP is running in his veins. JP is simmering in the protesters’ souls. And JP is written all over the ongoing movement.
Will 2024 take us back to 1977?
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