It’s not entirely accurate to say that the farmers’ protest against the Narendra Modi government’s farm laws has completed six months. The protests actually began in Punjab much earlier – in August 2020 – when the proposal for the new farm laws became public.
However, officially the protest organisers decided to commemorate six months of their movement on 26 May – marking six months since the protesters decided to march to Delhi from Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states.
A lot has happened in these six months – from several rounds of negotiations between the government and farmers, the fiasco at the Red Fort, increasing international support for the farmers, a fresh mobilisation in Western Uttar Pradesh following BKU leader Rakesh Tikait’s emotional appeal, a number of electoral reverses for the BJP and of course now the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the country.
A tragic reality is also the large number of farmers who have lost their lives during the course of the protest – according to unofficial estimates the number could be as high as 400.
So what lies ahead for the protests? Has the Coronavirus second wave derailed the protest the way the first wave did to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act last year?
Or has the Narendra Modi government’s declining popularity made it a little more amenable to a compromise with the protesting farmers, especially with crucial Assembly elections due next year?
This article will seek to look at the present stand and the possible options for the Modi government as well as the protesting farmers.
Where Do The Govt and Farmers Stand As of Now?
Presently, the statlemate is continuing between the government and the farmers. Officially, there has been no communication between the two sides since January this year.
The government’s last offer seems to have been to put the laws on hold for a brief period and another contentious law dealing with power tariffs.
The farmers’ final stand was a complete withdrawal of the existing laws. They were, however, open to negotiating a new set of legislations after the existing ones were scrapped.
There has been no change of stances since then. However, the pandemic may have put some pressure on both sides to arrive at a compromise and avoid another confrontation.
Government is Paying a Political Price
The Modi government has been clear that it won’t scrap the laws under any circumstances. This seemed more a matter of ego than anything else – the government is said to have been willing to bring several amendments to the law that would dilute it significantly but unwilling to meet the core demand of scrapping the laws.
However, it is clear that the government is paying a political price for the laws.
The BJP and its ally JJP fared poorly in the Haryana urban civic body elections, even losing in some of its urban bastions on the Grand Trunk Road.
The BJP also lost a recent bypoll in Rajasthan’s Sujangarh Assembly constituency in Churu district, which also witnessed protests.
The BJP performed poorly in the Uttar Pradesh Panchayat elections, suffering reverses in Western UP which has been an epicentre of the protests. There has been a revival in the fortunes of the Rashtriya Lok Dal.
These three sets of results reflect a clear shifting away of the agrarian Jat community from the BJP.
Then of course the BJP also lost the high stakes Assembly elections in West Bengal. Though the farmers’ protest wasn’t a key issue there, Kisan Union leaders did go there and campaign against the BJP which did contribute to the narrative against the party.
These electoral reverses make it clear that the BJP hasn’t quite been able to contain the damage from the protests, the way it neutralised the impact of the anti-CAA protest in Assam.
Given this reality, there would be some pressure on the BJP to meet the farmers half-way and prevent the protest from becoming a threat in the run-up to the elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur next year. The protest has already made the BJP a pariah in Punjab and it could cause some damage in UP and Uttarakhand as well.
The Government Has Broadly Four Options
1. Scrap the farm laws, project Modi as a statesman
This is a dramatic possibility but it may help the government address criticism that it has become afflicted by arrogance and hubris.
However, it is an unlikely one, given the Modi government’s track record. It isn’t quite known to be receptive to feedback and climbing down after raising the stakes. The rollback of the land acquisition bill in the beginning of Modi’s first term is the only major exception to this.
2. Stay the farm laws for an even longer period
The government has already proposed to put the farm laws on hold for 18 months. A possible option could be to extend this to say 36 months, which would pretty much mean the end of the government’s tenure.
Through this the government could contain farmers’ anger while keeping corporates happy with the promise that it would implement these laws if its gets a fresh mandate in 2024.
3. Maintain status quo and try to delegitimise the protest
The other option is to try and delegitimise the movement and wear it down. The BJP released a document on the rising COVID-19 cases in which it blamed protesting farmers for the spike in North India. This indicated that the BJP is already trying to pursue this course of action to some extent.
However, the rising deaths across India and the suffering of the public due to inadequate infrastructure may make it difficult for the BJP to pin the entire blame on protesters.
4. Complete crackdown on protests
This is the other extreme possibility – that the government could use the pandemic or invoke national security related pretexts to crackdown on the protests. This may involve arresting its leaders and police action on protest sites.
The government has shown that it is capable of a complete crackdown, with the arrest of anti-CAA protesters across India and incarceration of political opponents in Kashmir being prime examples.
This would, of course, have very serious political consequences and take the government towards a point of no return in its authoritarianism.
What Options Do the Farm Unions Have?
As in the case with any anti-government protest, the power disproportionately lies with the State. Therefore, it’s not fair to speak of the protesters’ options in the same way as that of the government.
In the present scenario, the COVID-19 second wave has no doubt affected the momentum of the farmers’ protest, which was one of the most successful mass mobilisations against this government.
The farm unions are presently stretched for resources as well as energy. Given the rising Covid cases and tardy vaccination process, a fresh mobilisation may be difficult as Unions have to keep in mind the safety of the protesters as well.
However, with the symbolic 26 May protest, the farm unions managed to send a signal that the movement hasn’t died down.
The Unions could go for a fresh mobilisation in a few months time, once the Coronavirus cases have subsided and the vaccination process gathered momentum. This may be at a time when there are less than six months to go for the UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab elections.
This would give them greater bargaining power vis-a-vis the Centre.
It would also help the Unions get several pro-farmer concessions unrelated to the farm laws, from the Centre as well as the state governments in Punjab, UP and Uttarakhand.
A key role here would on how Opposition parties corner the government on the farm laws as well as its poor handling of the pandemic.
The big picture here is that the present situation regarding the farmers’ protests cannot continue for long. In at most a month or two, either the government or the farmers may be compelled to change the status quo.
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