The amazing public relations of the farmer protests in Maharashtra
What really made the farmers protests stand out and ultimately successful, was its amazing public relations machine.
The farmers earned the sympathy of not only the citizens of Mumbai but the rest of India, as they marched at night to avoid disruptions to urban commuters and students sitting for their board exams. There were no overt theatrics or violence, unlike the farmer protests around Maharashtra between June last year which resulted in the announcement of the 34,000 crore
The organisation sponsoring the march, All-India Kisan Sabha, an ally of the Communist Party of India, left no stone unturned when it came to social media. From the very first day of the march, they posted announcements and regular updates regarding the march’s progress on Twitter, using the hashtag #KisanLongMarch.
They even posted interviews with some of the farmers and quoted statistics about farmer suicides.
The march benefited from widespread media coverage. On March 12th, the Indian Express ran a front page report on the march and included interviews with 10 participating farmers on the problems they were facing. Scroll conducted Facebook Live conversations with farmers and Mid-Day ran a front-page headline that read, “Mumbaikars Welcome Farmers With Open Arms”. In a piece for the Wire, Ayush Dubey, a young journalist, wrote of his experience as a participant in the march, stating “this is a real protest by a sad farmer community. They are working hard for their demands”.
All news outlets explicitly mentioned that the farmers were looking for more than just debt forgiveness. It was clear that they were also calling for the implementation of property rights and minimum support prices for their produce as well as the cancellation of river-sharing agreements. Attention was also drawn to the severity of their conditions, epitomised by their bleeding, blistered feet- a sign of dignified, non-violent desperation.
The public didn’t need any more convincing. Images of the march at night went viral on social media on March 11th. This achieved the holy grail from a public relations standpoint- it made a protest against the government look beautiful.
Stunning photograph by Vijayanand Gupta of @htTweets showing about 35,000 farmers marching through the night in Bombay towards Azad Maidan. This is the kind of image that really lights up the city. #KisanLongMarch #nightmarch #Mumbai #photojournalism pic.twitter.com/cgC5uqx0Ep— Paroma Mukherjee (@ParomaMukherjee) March 12, 2018
There were also posts that highlighted the ingenuity of the farmers, making them stand out as individuals as opposed to faceless members of a crowd. The case of Lakshman Bhasre proved to be an important human interest story. Bhasre, a farmer from Nashik, had a solar panel on his head for charging phones.
Favourite photo from #KisanLongMarch this afternoon -- Farmers have no access to electricity so Lakshman Bhasre from Tryumbakeshwar Taluka has been marching for 6 days with a tiny solar panel on his head. He uses it to charge his phone and help other marchers charge theirs. pic.twitter.com/3He32abd4z— Pragya Tiwari (@PragyaTiwari) March 12, 2018
The march also received the support of prominent members of the Opposition such as Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress and Aditya Thackeray, the leader of the youth wing of the Shiv Sena.
The mammoth #FarmersMarchToMumbai is a stunning example of people’s power. The Congress party stands with the Farmers & Tribals marching to protest against the Central & State Govts. apathy.— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) March 12, 2018
I appeal to PM Modi and the CM to not stand on ego and to accept their just demands.
They are farmers who need to be heard. It’s unfortunate to be insensitive to those who feed us and put ideological cages on them. I’m proud of my fellow Shiv Sainiks who are with them nursing their wounds, and voicing the farmers in the Assembly too, only seeing their need. pic.twitter.com/6eJfhc1RTI— Aaditya Thackeray (@AUThackeray) March 12, 2018
The success of the march, especially in terms of public relations, points to why the protests by Tamil Nadu farmers in Delhi last year didn’t amount to much.
Starting in March last year, around 150 farmers from Tamil Nadu staged a protest for 144 days outside the Jantar Mantar to ask for a loan waiver, which would be financed by the Centre’s drought relief fund. Their protests also received media coverage and sympathy from statesmen like Rahul Gandhi and the chief minister of Tamil Nadu but failed to elicit the same level of public support as the long march in Maharashtra.
There are likely many reasons for this. First, the numbers might have been too low to justify a full-blown media frenzy. 150 farmers feels too small compared to a procession of 40,000 farmers. Secondly, given the fast pace of the 24-hours news cycle, the 144-day protest likely lost relevance to news readers and viewers well before its conclusion. The protest also lacked a groundswell of support from beginning as the farmers from Tamil Nadu weren’t on their home turf. Being stationed in the capital, which was necessary given that it was a federal rather than a state issue, might have actually worked against their favour. Lastly, unlike their counterparts in Maharashtra, their protest tactics, which included the brandishing of skulls, the consumption of faeces and stripping, might have proved too “unpalatable” to the public.
With their well-oiled public relations machine and sponsorship by a national farmers union, the Maharashtra farmers were able to wrest public support and effectively demonstrate the importance of their cause.