There is no issue in today’s India more compelling and distressing than the ongoing farmers’ agitation in the national capital. Despite several round of talks, the issue remains unresolved. The Supreme Court has now intervened to stay the implementation of the farm laws and constituted a Committee of Experts in an attempt to end the stalemate. The well-intentioned intervention of the Apex Court has added a new dimension to the issue, which may or may not facilitate an acceptable resolution. Any agitation where Government is a party, always presents an unequal power equation.
More so, when the agitation gets prolonged. As days pass, it is human nature for both sides to sharpen their tools and harden their stands. Each side begins to work on relative strengths to browbeat the other. In the instant case, Government has all the instruments of the state to deal with the agitation, while the farmers too have their physical and psychological endurance. Both these will be tested with every passing day.
In any dispute, the primary emotion is that of fear on both sides. The farmers fear that the new farm laws will rob them of their assured support prices and the comfort of the tried and tested arrangement of mandis. Though not a perfect system, they prefer the known imperfections to unknown paradise. Government fears that if it concedes to the farmers and rescinds the laws as demanded, it will send a wrong message that Government could be kowtowed by street protests. Government naturally infers that heeding protests could jeopardise future legislations. As the issue remains unresolved beyond a normal period of a few weeks and now that it has acquired a new dimension created by the Supreme Court, these fears keep on mutating like the corona virus.
Consequently, the perception and strategy also keep changing. With every succeeding day, illusions get entrenched on both sides. Each party assumes that the other would run out of endurance and give up. The farmers rightly assume that the agitation will spread to other parts of the country and then Government will have to concede. Government calculates that the agitators cannot endure for long. Against this already murky background, the agitating farmers perceive the Supreme Court intervention as a favour done to the Government that would eventually reiterate the unacceptable laws, maybe with some cosmetic changes.
However, agitations do not follow any predetermined script. Any delayed agitation becomes a game of diminishing returns for both sides. All long drawn out agitations have been essentially zero sum games as in the case of the miners’ strike in the UK, or the Railway strike in India, or the prolonged Government employees strike in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, there is a stark difference in the present instance as the farmers are not on the payroll of the Government. Their demand is to ensure fair price for their produce and protection from corporate exploitation. The entrenched social cynicism towards salaried class is starkly absent in the case of farmers.
The biggest impediment for the Government to freely negotiate with the farmers, however, lies elsewhere. It is the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, and the widespread resistance to it (which, however, seems to have fizzled out with the onset of the pandemic) that is coming in the way of an open dialogue. Government naturally fears that yielding to farmers’ demands and revoking the three contentious laws will have its ramifications on the CAA agitation.
The two instances are entirely different. The controversial farm laws directly affect the farmers and their income and wellbeing. On the other hand, CAA that discriminates on religious identity evokes intellectual and moral issues. The vulnerabilities likely to be induced by the farm laws are a matter of daily occurrence. Unlike the CAA, these farm laws are supposed to be a welfare measure, arguably to expand farmers’ opportunities and enhance their income. However, the targeted beneficiary is not convinced; but Government wants to force feed.
There was no imminent economic or social breakdown warranting such laws. Its need and urgency are hard to explain. The more the Government insists on these laws, disowned by the target group, the more the perception of the Government as the promoter and protector of corporate interests get entrenched, which further impedes a convincing dialogue. The door towards a solution will open only when Government is able to mentally un-twin these two legislations.
This in fact is a great opportunity for the Government to enhance its pro-farmer image. Instead of harping on the perceived benefits of the legislation, which the farmers are unable to decode, Government may quietly bury the laws, which the Apex Court has in any case stalled. A democratic Government endears itself only when it demonstrates the capability to respect the genuine sentiments and address the apprehensions of its citizens. And no law is so infallible that it cannot be revisited. Even the Constitution was amended repeatedly.
Now that the Supreme Court has given a window of opportunity, Government should boldly declare that if the farmers are not convinced about these ‘reforms’ and their ‘benefits’, false pride shall not come in the way to repeal these (unwanted) laws. The image managers may seize this opportunity to position Government as the champion of the farmers. At least, the PR potential of such a position should not be missed.
Views expressed are of the author
Writer is former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan