Farmers at the Singhu border near Delhi on December 3, 2020
Farmers at the Singhu border near Delhi on December 3, 2020
Reuters

For the first time, the Modi Government faces a serious challenge. The Punjab farmers’ protest against the three farm reform legislations poses a Hobson’s choice: Succumbing under pressure will jeopardise long overdue reforms but failure to buy peace risks violence and disruption at a time the economy is still to recover from a pandemic-induced slowdown. Finding itself trapped in a cul de sac, all things considered, a negotiated climbdown at this juncture seems the only sensible course available. For, the longer the siege of the capital continues, the greater is the danger of the misdirected agitation snowballing into a much bigger conflict.

Already, the truckers are threatening to join the stir. This may disrupt essential supplies nation-wide. At present, 90 per cent of the farmers are from Punjab but farmers from other states will likely feel obliged to show solidarity should there be a prolonged stalemate. Admittedly, the Government faces a peculiar dilemma. Despite its good intentions to modernise the long stagnant farm sector, to infuse private capital and modern technology for higher yields per acre and better incomes for landowners, it finds itself stymied by vested interests. Of course, it cannot escape blame for not engaging with the stakeholders before pushing the reforms through Parliament.

Typically, the Modi Government’s repeated failure to broad-base decision-making for a wider consensus on far-reaching legislations has resulted in the present imbroglio. It stands to lose face should it retreat under the threat of the determined, though thoroughly misguided farmers, but losing the small battle and surviving to win the big war after necessary preparations is sensible, rather than aggravating the situation and allowing the hardliners to dig in their heels.

Right now, the utmost priority should be to clear the highways leading into the national capital. It cannot be achieved without offering the protesters a 'victory', even though they might harm their own long-term interests. Here, we cannot help but come back to the inherent failure of the government to involve those for whose sake it presumably acts unilaterally and lands itself in trouble.

What might have been tolerable in Gujarat cannot be replicated at the national level without facing serious consequences. Yes, sometimes bitter medicine needs to be administered against the wishes of a patient but in a democratic polity with multiple interests and a political opposition waiting in the wings to object and obstruct, no government can ramrod reforms without advance homework. Punjab farmers in the grip of greedy 'arthiyas' who earn hefty commissions gratuitously from the obligatory procurement of wheat and paddy by the Food Corporation of India are a volatile lot.

Given that the two main parties in the state, the ruling Congress and the opposing Akalis, are fiercely vying with each other to be seen in support of the farmers, it is best to let the protesters go back feeling 'victorious'. The siege of Delhi should not be allowed to grow into a bigger chakka jam. The government should draw a lesson from this mishap: Never take the stakeholders for granted even if you mean well and want to do them good. Finally, remember, you can take a horse to water but it is hard to make it drink.

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