The failure of the eighth round of ‘talks’ held between farmers’ representatives and Central government ministers was expected. The ‘talks’ had always been more of optics and less of substance. Just two days before the January 8 meeting, the agriculture minister met some farmers who supported the three laws and declared that the government is meeting both sides and was confident that agitating farmers would realise the benefits of these laws.
Everybody, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi downward in the government to the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, has been campaigning to extoll the benefits of these laws. So, it is no surprise that nothing moves in the so-called talks.
What will happen now?
The farmers' organisations that are leading the blockade of five highways entering the capital were prepared for this right from the beginning: they had declared that they were coming with six-months of food and provisions. Even before the seventh round of talks on January 4, the leadership had announced a programme of action that stretched right up to the Republic Day on January 26. The programme was:
Govt is in Denial
This is uncharted territory for the six-year-old Modi government. It has never faced such a massive opposition, spread across the country, and so determined to outlast any war of attrition. The last time the government had a face-off with farmers was in 2015, when it was defending an ordinance that it had brought in for changes in the land acquisition law passed by the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government in 2013. The Modi government was confronted with escalating unrest, further heightened by police firing in Mandsaur (Madhya Pradesh) that killed six farmers, and quickly backed off.
But that was then. It seems that the 2019 victory in the Lok Sabha elections and the subsequent railroading of its own agenda – abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, a new citizenship law – has convinced it that it is invincible.
After the pandemic hit India early last year, the Modi government utilised the lockdown to push through a series of laws and policies that it thought were needed for India. These included, among others, the three farm laws, and a Bill to amend the existing electricity law. It had thought that there would be some ritual opposition that will peter out.
Such was the arrogance that even after a long-term ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, quit the government, even after farmers in Punjab started blocking train traffic, the Modi government was – ostrich-like – unmoved. It was in denial, which is a very dangerous condition to be in if you are ruling a country.
Unlike any sensible and people-oriented ruling dispensation, the Modi government has been going about trying to sabotage or subvert the farmers’ movement.
Tactics to Puncture Farmers’ Movement
The Central government has tried slander, by alleging that this was a movement propped up by the Opposition parties who had no sympathy for farmers. This did not cut much ice with the farmers because the truth was that the movement was actually being led by farmers’ unions and organisations. Political parties were extending support, but they could hardly be termed as ‘propping’ it up.
Some elements of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar affiliates also tried to allege that the movement involved ‘Khalistanis’ and even the ‘tukde tukde gang’ a favourite term used by BJP bigwigs, referring to those who dissent against its policies. Such was the backlash against these ludicrous allegations that the government had to backtrack.
Then, the Modi government tried to go on an ‘explaining’ spree, claiming that its leaders will hold meetings in 700 districts of the country where farmers will be ‘educated’ on the benefits of the new laws. The PM held virtual meetings with farmers’ groups from here and there and – it was claimed – that lakhs of others would also tune into these exchanges.
Leaving no stone unturned, the Prime Minister also paid a quick visit to a prominent Gurudwara right next to Parliament, thinking that his credentials as a well-wisher of Sikhism would perhaps lead to greater acceptance among the largely Sikh farmers of Punjab. The government even brought out a booklet extolling the Prime Minister’s commitment to the Sikh faith, with glorious photographs and quotes by him.
Then, the BJP organised various farmers’ groups and declared that they are 'supporting’ the laws, contrary to the ‘misled and ignorant’ farmers opposing it. The government started pretending that there was widespread support for the new laws in many parts of the country, as distinct from the opposition in only some parts – a clear attempt to drive a wedge in the farmers’ unity.
In the last round of talks, the government even reversed its long-held position that the Supreme Court should not intervene in policy matters and suggested to the farmers that they should approach the apex court if they want the laws scrapped.
Time to Wake Up
In short, the Prime Minister, his ministers, and the entire BJP, along with the larger Sangh Parivar, has been buzzing around trying to somehow puncture the farmers’ movement. It clearly has no intention of backing down on anything except the minor aspects.
In this background, it is clear that the government’s allegiance to corporate takeover of agricultural production, trade and pricing is complete. This is part of the free market approach that it has adopted throughout, reflected most blatantly in the four labour codes it has enacted, doing away with protective labour laws, and introducing hire and fire type of relations. It has no commitment to the welfare of the people – it believes, perhaps, that corporate well-being and prosperity is all that it was mandated to ensure, the people’s well-being would follow willy-nilly.
Or, perhaps, it thinks that people can be won over by pseudo-nationalism and religious bigotry, and kept as docile servants, while the elite classes are given a free hand.
Whatever be the case, the Modi government is fast approaching a rude waking up moment. If it does not get its act together and seriously get down to resolving the farmers’ issues, the situation is likely to get aggravated, starting with the upcoming Republic Day.