Sometimes a street brawl drags on for far too long, both sides suffer a lot, and the only thing that prevents the nightmare from ending is ego. Both sides need a face-saving exit but egotism demands that both want to come out as the winner. One has to lose.
In such situations, what is needed is a respected elderly person who can say, chalo chhoro, khatam karo. Just end it, forgive and forget.
In the case of the never-ending protests by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana (mostly), the Supreme Court tried to be that wise old man. Whether or not it was appropriate for the Supreme Court to do so, it halted the implementation of the farm laws — indefinitely — and set up a committee to talk to the farmers. This could have been an ideal solution, since postponing crisis resolution with endless extensions to committees is a good old formula. But the members chosen for the committee had all been known for their pro-reform position and thus did not inspire confidence among the protesters.
Even so, the halting of the farm laws should have been enough for the farmers to go home. They could return if the laws were to be implemented again, no? Except that organising such a protest is no cakewalk. How were the protesters to trust that the laws won’t be implemented once they went home? That’s why they stuck to their position of demanding a complete repeal of the laws.
The Narendra Modi government seems to have understood this concern and offered a reasonable assurance of suspending the implementation for 1.5 years. That would be sufficient time to evolve a consensus, maybe even quietly repeal the laws or forget all about them, whatever the government thought best. But the protesters weren’t convinced, which tells you of the complete lack of trust between both sides.
A narrative backfires
I had written earlier on the breakdown of trust due to political polarisation, whereby Modi voters have blind faith in Modi and those who don’t vote for him have absolutely no trust. This is the opposite of ‘Sabka Vishwas’ (everyone’s trust), the addendum Modi made to his slogan ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ (everyone together, everyone’s development) upon his 2019 re-election.
Every attempt to discredit and delegitimise farmers, every narrative tool used against them has backfired. Even the 26 January vandalism by a section of protesters at the Red Fort has not worked. It became clear that we were dealing with a very difficult situation when Rakesh Tikait’s tears re-energised the protests and the Yogi Adityanath government backtracked on its attempts to clear the protest site in Uttar Pradesh.
If on 26-27 January it appeared the government would have an upper hand and clear out the protests, it has not turned out that way. Attempts to use low-level violence, make it a locals-versus-violent protesters story, haven’t worked either.
At this point, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is losing more political capital by not repealing the farm laws than he would by repealing them. The dragging on of these protests, the poor optics of containing them as if they were enemy forces, shutting down the internet and cracking down on liberal media — all of this is terrible for Modi’s image.
Whether you support or oppose the farm laws, they have already become infructuous. If the farmers were to accept the Modi government’s offer of a moratorium for 1.5 years, they would be on hold until mid-2022. By that time, the Lok Sabha election would be too close to implement them and risk such huge protests again, even in a Punjab where the BJP doesn’t need seats for Modi to return in 2024.
The government has also been willing to discuss the farm laws clause by clause, indicating it is open to completely re-thinking them.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attitude towards these protesters seems to be one of othering them — us-versus-them. An article in the latest issue of Organiser speaks of the tractor as a new symbol of terror! This narrative is only going to worsen the divide, widen the chasm and deepen the mistrust.
Farm reform 2.0
If the farm laws can be halted indefinitely, if they can be halted for 1.5 years, if they can be reconsidered clause by clause, they can also be repealed. Narendra Modi can say he is going to bring them afresh after some time, after taking the protesting groups on board, after evolving consensus, in keeping with his motto of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’. Doing this will be more than a face-saving exit for Modi. It will make him look like the gentle statesman he not only wants to be, but should be, given that he is the prime minister.
Prime Minister Modi would do well to rise above this discourse of polarisation and make it clear that he is willing to be accommodative of the concerns of even those who don’t vote for him. Such is the stuff a nation needs to be ‘united’.
The Green Revolution has long run its course and we do need radical reforms in Indian agriculture. The good thing that has come out of this sorry episode is wide public debate and discussion on reforming Indian agriculture. Let us allay the concerns of farmers by repealing the laws without ego, and get back to the task of building consensus on reforming agriculture, clearly laying down what the problem is, and how we can solve it. Shoving hurriedly passed laws down the throats of unwilling farmers is not how it can be done. At least not in a democracy.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.