The Importance of Leadership Role in the Current Farmers’ Protest

Due to the historical traditions of peasant struggles in Punjab, in the current farmers’ revolt against agro-business capitalism articulated through three farms laws brought by Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime, the leaders of farmers organisations in Punjab played the leading role. It inspired first the Haryana peasantry and later the peasantry in UP, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and other states to join the struggle. It is now progressing to become a country wide struggle going even beyond farmers. To understand the role leadership plays in any struggle, it is important to understand the significance of the concept of the ‘vanguard’. In every egalitarian movement, there is one sector which is the most advanced and provides leadership. This sector is the vanguard. It articulates the interests, aspirations and even emotions of other rebellious sections of society.
Although the concept of the vanguard is highly significant, I must warn against overstating its role. The significance of the vanguard lies in the fact that – in any society – there are disparities between different classes in terms of economic clout, social cohesiveness, educational awareness and political organisation, and that – as a result – some classes or social groups are more politically advanced than others and emerge as leaders of society. Similarly, within a class or social group (defined in terms of religion, language, gender, caste, race or sexual orientation), there is a sector within that class or social group that is more able than others to provide leadership. We should also take care to understand the limitations of being in the vanguard; if we assign excessive importance to the vanguard, it can lead to a gulf between the leadership and the mass membership, and to the view that one section is ‘active’ and ‘leading’, and the other sections are ‘passive’ and ‘followers’.
This ‘active’/’passive’, ‘leader’/’follower’ dichotomy can lead to the bureaucratisation of society or organisations, and to the weakening of democratic functioning. Such bureaucratisation also limits the creativity of the masses. Attributing excessive importance to the role of vanguard is described critically as ‘vanguardism’, and its dangers have been highlighted most compellingly by anarchist political philosophy. Anarchism as a political movement has a bad name in Indian political culture, largely because the great contributions of anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), whose 100th death anniversary fell on February 8th this year, remain generally unknown. Anarchism in India is vulgarly understood as chaos, but the real beauty of anarchist thought and political practice lies in emphasising the importance of the constant renewal of democracy and cooperative activity, as a check against the hierarchical and bureaucratic degeneration that often happens in any organisation or movement. Given the potential and limitations of the vanguard role, let us look at some historical examples to capture the significance of the role played by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana in the current struggle, and the possible outcomes.
(December 9, 1842 – February 8, 1921) was a Russian geographer, economist, activist, philologist, zoologist, evolutionary theorist, philosopher, writer and prominent anarchist.
In the UK in 1974, coal miners, led by the National Union of Miners (NUM), were the vanguard of the British working class. They organised a strike against the Conservative government, citing an inadequate pay rise, mobilised other sections of society and contributed to the defeat of the Conservative Party and the victory of the Labour government. However, after its victory, the NUM is now considered to have overestimated its strength, and continued with many further strike actions, which eventually led to a conservative backlash against strikes, the victory of the right-wing leader Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and continuous Conservative rule in Britain for the next 18 years. In the first place, the, NUM’s vanguard role was positive – they encouraged mass mobilisation and scored a victory – but one can argue that, as a vanguard, they did not have sufficient democratic support from coal miners or from the general public, which resulted in negative outcomes. Had the coal miners won in the second round of strike actions, especially by achieving mass mobilization in 1984, it would have led to a strengthening of the welfare state as a possible transition to democratic socialism in the UK. Their defeat in the second round led to the long-term entrenchment of right-wing anti-trade union policies in the UK, affecting even the politics of the Labour government under Tony Blair from 1997 onwards. The defeat of the coal miners was undoubtedly due not only to failures of leadership but also to changes in technology in coal mining and the reduced importance of coal mining in the British economy. However, the vanguard contributed both to the initial victory as well as to the later defeat.

In 1974 in India, railway workers were the vanguard. Their defeat paved the way for the rise of authoritarian Emergency under Indira Gandhi. Had the railway workers won, a new era of socialist-oriented reforms would have begun. In 1960s India, the textile workers in Bombay were the vanguard, and sent Communists and Socialists to participate in India’s parliament. The crushing of the textile workers led to the rise of the right-wing Shiv Sena.

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The Nepali Maoists were the vanguard in the movement to overthrow the monarchy in Nepal. Their success in 2007-08 was a historic turning-point in the struggle to overturn a system that had lasted for over 250 years. Had they failed, the monarchy would have received support from the US and India, which would have led to large scale massacres in Nepal. When the pro-monarchy actors in the US and India realised that the balance of forces was in favour of ending the monarchy, including the military strength of the armed Maoists who had support even among the military, they retreated. Looking further back, in 1921 Bolshevik Russia, the Kronstadt sailors were the vanguard of the working-class movement for socialist democracy. The crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion led to the rise of Stalinism and the degeneration of the socialist revolution of 1917.
Sailors from the Kronstadt garrison, photographed before their anti-Bolshevik uprising in March 1921
In today’s India, the Punjabi and Haryanvi farmers represent the vanguard of the entire farming community in India, and of other sectors of society associated directly or indirectly with farming (even the urban middle class who consume the food produced by farmers and farm workers). The outcome of the farmers’ revolt would similarly have positive or negative implications for Indian democracy and for reforms either in favour of the people or in favour of corporations and Hindu nationalist authoritarianism. Every progressive of every hue in India or anywhere else needs to stand behind the farmers. The leadership of the farmers’ organisations has been an exemplar of mass democracy. They have kept the large numbers of farmers encircling Delhi fully informed of every step they have taken in this struggle. This constant maintenance of their relationship with their base has enabled them to transcend the bureaucratism that is negatively associated with the vanguard role and has positively enhanced its democratic potentialities. The events on 26th January at Red Fort during the tractor parade organised by the farmers leadership that day in Delhi caused a dent, hopefully temporarily, in the quality of leadership provided by the farmers’ leaders.
All mass movements have different tendencies in them – some militant and others less so – and the strength and maturity of a great mass movement is demonstrated by its ability to recognise and respect the contribution of each group.
If we look at modern Indian history, be it the national movement for India’s independence, or the Akali movement for the liberation of gurdwaras from the corrupt pro-British mahants in the 1920s, or the communist or socialist movement for socio-economic justice from the 1950s onwards, or the anti-Emergency movement of the 1970s for democratic restoration, or the Dalit movement for social egalitarianism – each of these movements had certain extreme and less extreme tendencies or elements which contributed to their overall success. The different tendencies in these movements, even if they seemed at times to compete, complemented each other and provided strength to the overall movement.
The current movement against the farming laws has so far been a model of pluralism and diversity. The farming organisations participating in the struggle have different histories, sources of inspiration and ideological orientations but they have shown a remarkable capacity for mutual respect while reaching consensus on their course of action. That shining arc of pluralism needs to be expanded and not shrunk because of differences which surfaced during the march on January 26. Instead of falling into the trap of Godi media’s narratives of the 26th of January march, the farmers’ leadership should have tried to reach out to the dissident factions to iron out the tactical differences regarding the mode of participation in the protest that day and subsequently. Similarly, the dissident factions, despite differing with the mainstream leadership, should have followed the directives of that leadership. Both the leadership and the dissident factions must show mutual respect despite differences. That is the logic of success of mass movements. If either the leadership becomes too authoritarian or minority factions start following their own agendas, it can cause a very severe damage to any mass movement.
It is important to emphasise that despite the jolt suffered on 26th January, the command of the farmers’ movement remains in the hands of its sensible and experienced leadership, whose directives have so far been followed by all – including the younger, more impatient and rebellious factions.
The leadership’s most admirable role has been in bringing to light several aspects of the flaws in the three farming laws enacted by the Modi government: the definition of MSP and the ambiguity in government position on this , the contract farming framework loaded in favour of agribusiness entities, the dispute resolution mechanism doing away with civil courts, the scale of crippling penalties that can be imposed on a farmer in a case of non-compliance with the dispute resolution decision , the conflict between state laws operating in the APMC mandis and the central laws operating in the marketing yards outside the APMC mandis.
Critical flaws have also been pointed out regarding the scope for speculative hoarding emerging from the operation of Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act and its possible consequences for the Public Distribution System that now provides subsidised food for those low-income groups who constitute nearly 67% of Indian households. The farmers leadership need to pay more attention to this Act than it has shown so far because urban consumers will become more active supporters of the farmers movement once they realise the harmful consequences of speculation and hoarding for the rise in food prices. The fact that the government is now offering to suspend these laws for 18 months demonstrates the strength in the position of the farmers’ leadership that there was no reason to use an ordinance to push them through on June 6 in the first place.
The farmers’ leaders and mass supporters are writing history anew and changing the way we perceive the role of agriculture and the peasantry in what can be called development. They are crafting a new development paradigm. The farmers movement is giving an impetus to start rethinking about the wider importance of agriculture in “development” discourse. Both traditional right-wing thinking (such as Rostow’s stages of growth or Lewis’s dual economy model as exemplars of this mode of thinking), as well as the dominant left-wing thinking (Stalin’s collectivisation as an extreme form of such thinking), view development and growth as a path of moving from agriculture to industry to services.
In the era of global climate change where the planet faces an existential threat from global heating, and biodiversity loss that results from the traditional economic growth paths, whether of the traditional right or traditional left format, the central importance of farming and the farming ways of life which are compatible with ecological sustainability need to be re-imagined. Ecosocialist vision as a critique of both the traditional right-wing and traditional left-wing modes of thinking is an attempt to grapple with the ecological and health challenges humanity is currently facing.
It can be expected that the praxis of the farmers movement will enable its leadership and mass support to embrace such new visions on the future of agriculture and especially on the role of small peasantry in that ecologically informed development vision.

A Punjabi version of this was published earlier on 20th February in Punjabi Tribune


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Pritam Singh Written by:

Pritam Singh is a Professor Emeritus at Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford, UK. His two key publications are: Federalism, Nationalism an Development: India and the Punjab Economy, and Economy, Culture and Human Rights: Turbulence in Punjab, India and Beyond


  1. Jugnu G Almeida
    April 6, 2021

    What a brilliant Piece. The Farmers are definitely the VANGAURDS!

  2. gaurav
    April 16, 2021

    A nicely framed article but failed to inspire the moment farm laws were linked to Hindu government and protests with farmers. It is government of India and protests were not led by farmers but by politicians, with farmers now not in picture so to call it a protest is an utter shame, it should be called riots now. I am a neutral but surprisingly any article that talks about farmer protests does not give any insights about the flaws in the laws and only try to defame the government and provoke people. I understand laws having been to law school and also a taxpayer so would want farmers in Punjab specialy the rich ones to pay taxes or else why should I? In the end I see it as non tax paying farmers vs tax payers and not vs the government.

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