The limits of the Centre’s unilateralism

Are these really farmers who are blocking the roads and protesting?” It’s a quizzical question often asked on news TV by many who rarely step out of studios. They are Congress-sponsored groups, claim government spokespersons; they are Khalistani sympathisers, suggest the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s social media warriors.

The first theory can be easily countered. If the Congress had the resources and organisational might to sponsor a farmers’ movement for even a week, the party wouldn’t be reduced to 52 Members of Parliament (MPs). To demonise the protesting farmers as Khalistanis is more unfortunate. It reveals a mindset that seeks to stereotype any anti-government protest as anti-national. The Punjabi Jat farmer’s attachment to land is a bit like the Gujarati middle class community’s connection to the stock market: Bring in a stock-market reform that sparks off fears over future profits and watch the reaction in Surat. A handful of people speaking in support of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s bloodied legacy is hardly reason enough to label a movement of farmer unions as being driven by Sikh separatism.

So then, who are these protesters braving winter temperatures and police water cannons and gheraoing Delhi? What if one suggested that they are ordinary citizens worried about a new legal framework that could disrupt their traditional working system? It isn’t as if these farmers are impoverished. The average landholding in Punjab is 3.7 hectares, well above the national average. It isn’t as if the new farm laws will destroy their lives; instead, the reforms can benefit farmers by eliminating middlemen. It’s just that there was a stark unilateral edge to the Centre’s decision to bring in laws that could change Punjab’s well-entrenched mandi system of crop sale and purchase.

The manner in which farm reforms were pushed through a brute majority in Parliament, with almost no consultation with stakeholders, lies at the root of the confrontation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s predecessors — PV Narasimha Rao, AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh — were constrained by the absence of a majority and had to reform by stealth or consensus. The Modi model is built around a strongman-State that issues firmans with no dialogue with the parties concerned. Then, be it a hugely disruptive move such as demonetisation or a grandiose vision like the Central Vista project, there is little space for any pre-decision conversation. Recall also the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir or the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

In each instance, dissenting voices were stifled, even criminalised. Little attempt was made to strike up a dialogue with protesters; they were not seen as the BJP’s vote bank.

By contrast, farmers are a crucial vote bank. Modi makes it a point to reach out to the garib-kisan in almost every speech. The Centre’s media machine repeatedly points out how the government has hiked the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and provided small and marginal farmers ₹6,000 annual income support under the PM-Kisan scheme. There is also no doubt that a large number of farmers have voted for the BJP in elections. Punjab is an exception here since it is the one north Indian state that has resisted the Modi wave since 2014.

It is the recognition that any kind of farmer revolt can spiral out of control that has forced the government to the dialogue table. A protest which begins in Punjab can easily spread to neighbouring BJP-ruled Haryana, and indeed to other states with large and restive farm populations. Political leaders in the Kashmir Valley can be jailed, student activists from a Jawaharlal Nehru University can be browbeaten, the Shaheen Bagh women can be threatened with goli maaro rhetoric, but an angry and restless farmer must be assuaged.

Which is why the events of the last week perhaps provide a clue to where the real opposition to the Modi government’s dominance lies. It doesn’t lie in a weak political Opposition whose leaders struggle to go beyond Twitter debates. It doesn’t lie in institutions that have been weakened over time. It doesn’t lie in a media which has, with a few exceptions, lost the capacity to tell truth to power. It doesn’t lie in urban elites hypnotised by political Hindutva and a larger-than-life leadership to even question blunders such as demonetisation.

The opposition to governments that rule by decree lies in sizeable groups of ordinary Indians who do not like being taken for granted. Modi is by far the most popular leader in the country. But personal popularity does not guarantee permanent support on each issue. A more consensual approach is sometimes needed to remove anxieties when initiating far-reaching reforms. A one-sided diktat is no answer when people need to be first comforted and convinced into acceptance of a new law.

Post-script: While the Delhi-centric media’s attention has been focused on the farm agitation, citizen groups in south Goa have been holding day and night protests against infrastructure projects that threaten the state’s fragile and invaluable forests and wildlife sanctuaries. In a land of a million mutinies, citizen power is the best antidote to executive overreach.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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