Farmers staying the course

Julio Ribeiro

The Punjab, Haryana and western UP farmers, who are spearheading the protest against the new farm laws, appear to be as determined as they were on the day they began their march to Delhi. They have braved the cold, the rain, the hardships that living in tents bring, the tear-gas shells of the Haryana Police and the water cannons. Nothing seems to deter them.

They have been called Khalistanis, pro-Pakistan, anti-national, friends of Maoists and more, but the epithets have not moved them. The allegation that opposition parties have set them up for political mileage has induced a prompt reply from the agitation’s leaders that it is not the Opposition that has led them, but it jumped aboard the farmers’ bandwagon when it sensed that the government had been put on the backfoot.

The Opposition taking advantage of the government’s discomfiture is to be expected in any democracy. The BJP would have followed the same course if it was in the Opposition. The Congress had advocated the same reforms when it was in the electoral fray, but has now gone back on its stand when the BJP initiated the reforms. This, too, can be expected in a democracy. The GST was initially proposed by the Congress, but when the BJP introduced the reform, the Congress had much to say! The people take such developments as par for the course.

There is one threat that the agitating farmers have voiced which I feel may hurt them — the threat to disrupt the Republic Day celebrations at Janpath. There are certain sacred days that every patriotic Indian must not denigrate at any cost. The Independence and Republic Days are the most sacred, along with the Mahatma’s birthday. The farmers will be making a humongous mistake if they breach that compact. The sympathy of the general public will diminish if they carry out any form of protests on that sacred day.

The farmers are a highly valued segment of society. The government knows it cannot deal with farmers like it dealt with anti-CAA protesters, even though the Shaheen Bagh crowd was mostly Muslim women, including JNU and Jamia Millia students. In Adityanath’s UP, the police confiscated the blankets brought by the protesters. This type of police action against farmers cannot even be considered, let alone tried!

The government insists that the three laws will benefit the farmers and it may well be so. Many economists and agri-experts have said so, but they are mostly intellectuals immersed in thought in the comfort of their study rooms. The farmers are the ones with hands-on experience. They do not agree with the government and the experts. It is difficult for citizens to judge. The government says the farmer is free to sell anywhere in the country, and not necessarily to the next-door mandi. That is theoretically true but there are practical difficulties in transporting the produce over long distances without incurring added costs. Added to that is the fact that the farmer is always in need of ready cash for the next sowing or for his household expenses. Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.

The government suspects that the middlemen, who it has set out to eliminate, are behind the farmers. The middlemen have the most to lose. They will naturally try to protect their turf. Very cleverly, they have sown doubts in the farmers’ mind that the government is out to fatten the rich and powerful business houses. This propaganda has been lapped up with the consequent attacks on Jio’s transmission towers in Punjab.

The government has been hoist with some of its own petards. Demonetisation was introduced overnight to surprise those with black money stored under mattresses. Black money operators were far too clever, it appears. No notable success came the government’s way. The farmers obviously do not want to become guinea pigs in another possible experiment which the government says will double their income. It may very well do so, as many experts have opined, but it is, at present, in the realm of theory only. The farmers of Punjab and Haryana are already better off than their compatriots in other states.

The government should reconsider its stated policy of foisting its ideas and calculations on cost-benefit ratios on people or segments of people without due notice. In some matters like demonetisation and last year’s action in J&K, there would be a need for secrecy but in trying to uplift farmers or favouring Bangladeshi Hindus for instant citizenship, there was no need for any surprise or hurry in ramming legislation through Parliament without adequate debate.

Secrecy could be justified in the demonetisation announcement and in the overnight detention of J&K leaders, but even then, the fact that the government is adept in secret manoeuvres resonates in the less sophisticated human minds at such times. When the government says that it is introducing laws for the good of the people or segments of the public, such promises are taken with large pinches of salt.

The government’s credibility comes into focus at such times. I, for one, do not doubt that the government’s intention was to benefit the farmers. But in the light of its low credibility index, it should have been more circumspect by taking the intended beneficiaries into confidence and convincing them that it had only their good in mind and not that of the party’s funders.

The agitation will continue till one of the parties blinks. The government cannot afford to repeal the three laws. Such a move will be disastrous for it from every angle, chiefly its impact on the image of Modiji himself. It may not trouble the poor who have crossed over to his side because of the direct transfers of government munificence to their bank accounts and the houses and toilets, electricity and roads they say he has provided. But to his traditional vote banks among the middle classes it will certainly matter!

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