Never before in more than six years in power has the Modi government faced such a tough test. The on-going farmers’ protest is a threat to not only its public standing but to its capacity to govern with a semblance of moral authority. There is no easy solution to end the stalemate.
With the Opposition trying desperately to regain relevance and the farmers hell-bent on nothing but the outright repeal of the farm sector reforms, the government is in a damned-if-it-does-and-damned-if-it-doesn’t trap. It can neither repeal the three laws nor countenance the groups of Punjab, Haryana and west UP farmers sitting on dharna at the borders of the national capital. After more than two months of the siege, the onus is on the government to resolve the issue. But there are no easy solutions.
As we have said in this space before, most uncharacteristically, the government has bent over backwards to accommodate the farmers. And after 12 rounds of talks, it has virtually denuded the three legislative measures of its core content, but to no avail. Even when it offered to suspend the implementation of the reform-laws for 18 months, the protesters contemptuously rejected the offer. In other words, they want to humiliate the government, to drain out its moral authority, to damage its domestic and foreign standing, nay, to turn it into a lame duck more than three years before its five-year term is scheduled to end.
Ordinary citizens would not want that the government should be seen as weak and vulnerable, for it would render governance that much more harder. But what is the alternative if the farmers refuse to see reason? Allowing them to continue occupying the highways into the capital indefinitely is to invite trouble unannounced at some point of time when it is least expected. Besides, it is bad publicity for the country. Nor can they be removed by the use of force. That is completely ruled out.
Had any other group of protesters behaved the way the farmers did on the Republic Day, it would have led to at least a police lathi-charge and may be, justifiably firing, at least at Red Fort, when a group of Sikhs hoisted the Nishan Saheb on its ramparts. If the police looked on helplessly and in the process, suffered physical assaults, it was because they were under orders not to use force under any circumstances. If only the farmers had a modicum of leadership capable of appreciating the manner in which the government has accommodated them at every turn, it would not be hard to resolve the issue in an amicable manner.
The problem is that none among the 40-odd unions claiming to be spearheading the protest has the sagacity to rise above the mob and lead the rest to settle the dispute before it is too late. They have forced the government to its knees already. Any more pressure could prove counter-productive. Rakesh Tikait, the west UP leader of the Jat farmers, is not above doing underhand deals. Post-Republic Day, he has attracted attention to the exclusion of the events at the Singhu border, which is dominated by the farmers from Punjab.
As Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said in the Rajya Sabha while replying to a live debate on the farmers’ protest, nobody seemed to be clear as to what was wrong in the three reforms but everyone had been repeating parrot-like, that these be repealed. Indeed, a straw poll of over a hundred journalists-columnists by a well-known foreign broadcaster revealed that hardly anyone was clear as to what specifically was anti-farmer in these laws, most justifying the opposition on the supposition that their implementation will lead to the corporatisation of agriculture. By itself that would not be a bad thing, given that the farm sector still supports over half the working population.
Creation of economic opportunities in the non-farm sector is essential to make our agriculture efficient. This cannot be achieved without implementing reforms. And simultaneously growing the economy to create opportunities for millions of Indians forced to live off the meagre landholdings. The opposition to agri reforms is essentially political and stems from those who can afford to sit at the Singhu border, while the Bihari and UP bhaiyyas tend their farms and the FCI mandatorily purchases whatever wheat and paddy they produce with subsidised inputs and without being called upon to pay a penny as contribution to the public exchequer.
Vested interests among farmers are holding back the process of reforms, something the visceral critics of the government refuse to recognise. Anyone with a stake in the progress of the country would feel frustrated at this situation.