Farmers’ protests | Government climbdown forced by Supreme Court refusal to stay Republic Day tractor rally

Narendra Singh Tomar.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar announced on Wednesday evening, after more than 10 rounds of talks with farmers unions, that the government was ready to suspend the implementation of the three contentious farm laws. With that, the government hoped that the unions, determined to take out a tractor rally on Republic Day would rethink their months-long agitation and vacate their blockade of the national capital.

The reasons for the government’s compromise formula are not hard to find. The continued strike by farmers’ unions, especially the ones hailing from Punjab and Haryana, the imminent nature of R- Day celebrations and the Supreme Court’s refusal to ban a proposed tractor rally were just the immediate reasons for the compromise formula.

Within the government however, there is a realisation that it had lost the communications game early in the day. “During the COVID-19 policy rejig, the ‘aapada main avasar’ [opportunities in crisis] set of changes in laws governing labour, small industry, and agriculture were announced and while a lot of consultation on these had taken place over the years, the announcements were sudden,” said a government official.

The size and heterogenity of the protests meant that government interlocutors had to do hectic backchannel and overt negotiations with groups which may or may not have the freedom to act as representatives of all groups.

Security implications

More importantly, security implications of a border State like Punjab seeing a long-term, even peaceful political protests of this sort were always going to be problematic. In fact, within days of the protests starting, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, whose party, the Congress, is supporting the cause of farmers, met with Union Home Minister Amit Shah on the security implications with regard to the protests.

While the accusations from certain sections that the movement was infiltrated by Sikh separatist elements was dismissed by government ministers in charge of negotiations with farmers’ unions after a backlash, the statements made by Members of Parliament and even governments of Canada and some MPs in Britain added a new dimension to the way the government viewed the protests.

RSS getting nervous

The indefinite continuation of a well-funded protest was making the government and the ruling party’s ideological mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh also nervous. In an interview to the Indian Express, the second in command of the RSS, Suresh “Bhaiyyaji” Joshi, said it in as many words, that indefinite agitations by the farmers was not desirable for any stable government.

The extent to which the government has been willing to go, however, has also been determined by what happened when the Modi government in its first avatar tried to pass the Land Acquisition Ordinance and faced a backlash. The ordinance was scrapped after adverse response and accusations that the government was favouring crony capitalists over farmers and rural land owners. A similar narrative was building up over agriculture reforms too.

With the Supreme Court having suspended the implementation of the three farm bills for a couple of months, the government went a step further and offered the suspension for a year and a half if required. Whether the government after that period, at almost hitting the home stretch before the next General Election, will have the appetite to push through these now hugely contentious laws, is of course an important question hanging in the air.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 5:24:04 AM |

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