Elections and the idea of struggle

Joginder Ugrahan

As village after village is being visited by the political elite of the state of Punjab to make promises and appease the voters for 20th February (when their fate gets decided by the population of the state), the members of BKU (Ekta) Ugrahan – the largest Kisan union  in Punjab –  was busy preparing for its Lok Kalyan rally, which was held yesterday (17th Feb). The rally which was held at dana mandi (grain market) Barnala was a reminder to the people to keep their unity intact in that face of coming elections. Ever since they returned from the Delhi Morcha, the organization has been careful to time and again to warn the voters, especially those who participated in Delhi morcha, to not compromise on the ideals of struggle which they had achieved during the year long struggle at Delhi borders. During the past two months, whether it was to oppose PM Modi’s visit in Punjab on 5 January when hundreds of farmers and labourers marched the streets of Sangrur or on the 31st of January – to mark the day of betrayal announced by Samyukt Kisan Morcha – when the effigies of the central government and PM Modi were burnt outside the DC office Sangrur, the Kisan Union has been standing true to its belief that no real change lies in electoral politics.

In a press conference on 12 January held at Press Club, Chandigarh, few days after 22 factions which were a part of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) decided to contest parliamentary elections in Punjab under a political front Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, the top leadership of BKU Ugrahan took the opportunity to explain to the people pf Punjab at large why they do not support the idea of farmer unions contesting elections and why they themselves will not do it. In an hour long press conference that was telecast live on BBC Punjabi, Jhanda Singh Jethuka, Sukhdev Singh Kokhri Kalan and Joginder Singh Ugrahan lay out in detail the reasons for them to not contest elections and further explain to the people at large as to how the political system is too vast and deep in itself to be changed by few good intentioned individuals. “Electoral politics is divisive. During elections families get polarized, there is fighting on the ground over who will win and as the politicians try to woo voters whom they have not seen for the past five years,” he says. “People can vote for whichever party they like but it is not going to change anything in the society.” While addressing the crowd at the lifting of morcha at the Reliance Petrol Pump in village Kheri, Sangrur Distt, he narrates an anecdote to hit the point home, “When I was young there was campaigning in the village during elections. I asked my father who will he vote for. He said candidate Paramjit. I asked him his reasons for choosing this particular candidate over others. He said he will vote for Paramjit because he touched my feet. I was surprised.” The crowd began laughing.

Every election season in the state has been witness to announcements of freebies, buying votes with money or bottles of alcohol. But the contours of politics in the state is changing, and a reflection of it can be witnessed on ground when many politicians who are holding smaller rallies are being questioned by the villagers over their agendas and how can they solve their real problems relating to agriculture, health, employment, education and overall governance. The main issue still remains the drug menace and employment as many youth migrate abroad in hope of securing a better future. This has been a cashing point for parties and even the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal was heard saying in an interview that Aam Aadmi Party will send the youth abroad and bear the costs. But people do not want freebies. They want jobs.

The role of organizations like BKU (Ekta) Ugrahan has been massive in educating the rural population and bringing about a sense of awareness in them about the real issues that are the cause of their suffering. The new slogan coined by the party, ‘Votan di jhaak chhaddo, sangarshan de jhande gaddo (stop looking for change in electoral politics, remain focused on the struggle) urge people to remain true to their struggle. Even organizations like Lok Morcha Punjab and Krantikari Kisan Union led by Dr. Darshanpal Singh have been holding rallies across state to iterate these very issues and that if people want change, they should be prepared to struggle, because once the election season goes away so will most of these politicians no matter how honest they sound right now. The believe the problem does lie not in this party or that but with the system at large which is still suffering from imperialism and is at mercy of policies formulated by western countries.

To understand and speak on this more, I visited village Ugrahan to have a conversation with Joginder Singh Ugrahan and understand from him more and what he thinks about Sanyukt Samaj Morcha and their view that they can bring about a real change from top down by penetrating the system. Below is some bit of that interview.

Question: The election season is on and there is lot of noise everywhere. The basic idea is of change and how to bring about change. There are two thoughts on this now – one believes that system can change by being in it and the other thought which is your organizations that to bring about any systematic change struggle is the only answer. What do you have to say?

JU: There is a lot of noise and conversation over this – how can we change the system. These two ideas are there – one of struggle and the other of being in the system to change it. Also there is a third which says which political party to vote for and which will bring about change. There is lot of conversation on social media and new channels over this – which party is more beneficial for the state. But none of the political parties are having any real conversations on any real issues. They are not saying how can they deal with this problem better than the other. They are just trying to put the other party down. What I see is just clamouring for power. Their outlook is limited to pleasing voters and get them to vote for their party on election day. There is no talk about how they can bring about fundamental change in the lives of people. As for the voters, they are confused about who to vote, whether to vote or not to vote. They want change but are unable to find a way forward. And therefore they find themselves in a trap and are feeling trapped within this limited thought. This is the conundrum of politics in Punjab at this time.

And we (as an organization) look at this is as an opportunity to make people aware, to educate them and guide them and therefore try and remove people from this trap. To let them know that the system cannot change so soon. If we can know what our destination is, if we can know who our friends are, who our enemies are, who is the one in control of our destiny, who is looting our hard work, how will we get a better life, which are the organizations responsible for giving us a better life and who controls those organizations. Right now people are not aware about all these things. In the current scenario, votes are sold for money, alcohol and people run after these things. And people are often disillusioned. Given the current way electoral politics functions and until our voters get to that level of awareness, I don’t think it is good for an organization leading people’s movement to get involved in electoral politics. We are not upset with them (SSM) that they are contesting elections, or why they are contesting elections or that it’s wrong for them to do it. When we started with the morcha, we were very conscious that if we want to make this mass movement strong, it has to stay away from active politics. And we succeeded in that. And this is our only complain with SSM.

Question: but now that we have returned to Punjab after a big victory and people are very happy that they have succeeded in repealing the laws and our capable of bringing about a change. After all this to go in the direction of electoral politics you think is correct? If we hadn’t won the morcha, it would have been different.

JU: Firstly, let understand that the morcha is not an absolute victory. We have won, there is no doubt in that but we cannot say that its an absolute victory. The morcha is not over. It is just suspended. And we all (other kisan organizations) understand this. We came back knowing that right now we have not been given a guarantee on MSP, that tthose responsible for Lakhimpur Khiri massacre still remain unpunished, that the cases on the farmers in Delhi and other states are still not revoked. Even the compensation to the families of those who lost their lives has not been done. So we cannot say we have won the morcha completely.

Secondly, victory is not something we should be gloating over or be overjoyed with. These things come and go with time. The fact that people have become aware after the morcha, have started questioning political parties over their issues, have gained strength in themselves, is a start in the right direction. But we still need to work towards strengthening this aspect. What is vote, how to use your vote, what kind of questions to ask the political parties and that their questions should reflect their reality. Until now did we ever hear people discussing WTO normally in villages? Did they ever discuss corporates or public sectors in daily conversations? The fact that they (the government) are selling off public sectors is a matter of conversation with people right now. They know that there is unjust distribution of resources, land and jobs. Why is there unemployment, why is there financial stress, why are farmers committing suicides – people are now thinking about these things. It’s important to raise the level of discourse. This is the first struggle (Delhi Morcha) which has made people aware. If our counterparts (SSM) wouldn’t have taken this step (to contest elections), then this morcha would have been a symbol of politics in India. The entire politics would have revolved around this morcha. This would have been a political power in itself and worked from the side as a massive pressure group on the government. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t achieve this. But to think that it won’t be done or cannot be done in the future, that is also not true. This is like a hindrance and small hindrances often do come.

Why is this election of 2022 different from past elections? Why is it seeming different? The answer to this connects with Delhi Morcha. If these 22 kisan organizations had not formed SSM, the impact of (SKM) would have been different on the current election scenario. It would have also been different on the 2024 elections…This is what we think. It’s their democratic right to contest elections and we do not have an issue with that. It’s their right. Even if they want to make their entire organization (kisan union) political, they can. But they should have made a separate political wing. To bring kisan unions into electoral politics, that we feel is wrong.

Novita Singh is an independent filmmaker and has been documenting the Kisan Andolan since November 2020 and now its political impact on state elections.

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