Seize the capital! Lessons for protesters PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 January 2021 00:52
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It is not surprising the farmers broke their word on the rally, it was part of the script to extract the most from govt

Forget whether Modi ‘rushed’ the Bills and without enough debate; if he had the numbers, there would have been more discussion, but the Bills would have been passed. Would the Punjab farmers have accepted the new farm laws then?


It is amazing that so many were taken aback by farmer unions breaking their word to the Delhi Police and, instead of sticking to the agreed route for their tractor march, storming all the barricades to enter into the capital, trying to mow down policemen who blocked their way, and even unfurling the Nishan Sahib flag at the Red Fort. The farmers have always had a maximalist agenda and their double-speak was quite open.

The farmers want the new farm laws repealed, arguing that the Centre can’t make farm laws as this is a state subject. And yet, they seek a legislative guarantee that the same Centre will keep buying grain from them at the MSP for all times to come! A Constitutional amendment in the 1950s, as it happens, allowed the Centre to make certain laws on state subjects, but the farmers and their supporters argue this is undue interference. In which case, how were they expecting the Centre would continue to spend `2.5 lakh crore a year—indeed, increase it dramatically—on MSP-based procurement and another `1 lakh crore or so on fertiliser subsides? That the benefits from this are cornered by a small section of farmers—like the ones in Punjab—it appears, never crossed their minds.

Indeed, while the agitation had the support of the Punjab CM, some of his supporters started saying a few months ago that, forget him, even the farmer leaders were not in control since hardliners were driving the agenda. That is also why, when the Narendra Modi-government made the ill-advised offer to keep the farm laws in abeyance for 18 months — while a panel which included farmers tried to address their concerns—instead of accepting it with alacrity, the farm unions said they would discuss it with their members.

Hardly surprising, then, that after some groups—presumably, the moderate ones—promised to stick to a route for the tractor march and agreed that the march  would begin after the parade was over, a large number of farmers broke the rules early on Tuesday; and once the violence was over, playing to their script, some unions said those indulging in violence were not their members while others have blamed anti-social elements for hijacking the protest!

Indeed, since there is no one over-arching union—and the Punjab CM refuses to formally represent the farmers—it was never clear who the Centre felt it was negotiating with and who was going to ensure that, were an agreement reached, the farmers honoured their side of the deal. So, while the Centre gave in on both the changes in electricity laws as well as the ban on stubble-burning during the early rounds of negotiations, the farmers accepted this as their right, and kept pressing for the repeal of the laws along with a legislatively guaranteed MSP-based procurement.

Equally puzzling is the talk, after the farmers stormed the capital, of an intelligence failure; why didn’t the police, several are asking, anticipate the violence? Hindsight is a powerful ally, but these worthies need to ponder over what they felt the police should have done had there not been an ‘intelligence failure’. Since the barricades that were put up did not stop the rampaging farmers, clearly stronger measures were called for. But what was the Delhi Police or the Centre expected to do? Putting tanks on all approach roads to Delhi was one solution, but it would have invited comparisons with Tiananmen Square; a greater use of force could have been tried, but even the death of one farmer threatens to snowball into something bigger even though it appears the police action was quite restrained.

While the Centre has to get the agitating farmers to back down, especially now that they have tasted even more blood and know that the government is on the backfoot, there is a larger lesson here. For one, it is clear the Centre failed to communicate that the protest was primarily about the Punjab farmers wanting to ensure they continued to corner the lion’s share of central government subsidies (read bit.ly/3qP52Aj for some details). Many continue to argue that the problem lay in the haste with which the Bills were rushed through Parliament, and the lack of debate in the House. What they do not talk of, however, is whether, had the Bills not been rushed and if there was a longer debate—which would have happened if Modi had more MPs in the Rajya Sabha—the Punjab farmers would have tolerated any attempt to lower their share of subsidies? Instead of getting guaranteed purchases of his crop at a fixed price, would the Punjab farmer agree to, like 90-95% of farmers across the country, sell his crop at wildly fluctuating market prices?

Modi has not cut into their subsidies so far, it is true, but if the reforms are carried to their logical conclusion, over time, fertiliser subsidies will have to be distributed evenly across all the country’s farmers, the MSP-system will have to be fixed so as to ensure farmers from West Bengal and Bihar also benefit; at a macro level, subsidies will have to make way for capital expenditure—on irrigation, warehouses etc—to benefit more farmers.

The point being missed in all the talk of how farmers needed to be taken into confidence on the new laws is that genuine reform cannot be done with everyone’s consent. Reforms are about removing the status quo, whoever is losing his benefits will always protest while those benefitting never come out to support the change. This is universally true, whether it is India Inc when then prime minister Manmohan Singh slashed import duties, the agitating farmers of Punjab now or the employees of PSUs—like BSNL and Air India—that may be shut instead of continuously bleeding the taxpayer; the moment the benefits are curtailed, the opposition to them builds up. If prime minister Modi is serious about reforms, he must be prepared to face a lot of opposition, exactly as his predecessors who reformed had to face. It is true, the opposition didn’t storm the capital before, but that’s the price we pay for delaying reforms for decades. The fact that Modi’s take-no-prisoners approach has alienated most political parties, including former allies, hasn’t helped either since many of the traditional peacemakers are no longer batting for him.


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