BJP Is Walking On Thin Ice, But Punjab Farmers Are Now Cornered For Good
By choosing to take a step back, the government has ensured its next steps forward are relatively easier.
For the farmers, the proposal is the last face-saving opportunity. By agreeing to this, they can come across as winners, at least in the short-term.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre appears to have made the first move to resolve the ongoing political deadlock with the protesting farmers at Singhu border of the national capital.
Proposing to hold the implementation of the laws for 18-24 months, the government has chosen to walk on thin ice while cornering the protesting farmers for good.
The farmers have asked for a day for internal consultations and are expected to come back with an answer today or tomorrow (January 22).
However, in the first reported response, the farmers have rejected the proposal and have vowed to continue with their demand for permanent repealing of the laws.
The proposed temporary suspension of the laws comes in the wake of two recent developments.
One, the order of the Supreme Court to stay the implementation of the laws unless a committee mandated by the apex court does not file a report on the grievances of the protesting farmers and on the ground situation.
The apex court's intervention was questionable, given the farm laws did not violate any fundamental rights or the Constitution as a whole, and Parliament was authorised to legislate on the matter.
Two, the Republic Day tractor rally announced by the farmers at Singhu.
Though the government requested the apex court for an injunction against the proposed rally, the apex court’s selective inaction and the deadlock between the Delhi Police and farmers over the route of the rally could have resulted in a law and order situation on 26 January.
Even if the proposed suspension is the government’s last-ditch attempt to curb any unprecedented situation on the ground around 26 January, or align itself with the apex court's order on staying the implementation of the laws, the government is now in a tricky position.
Firstly, it makes for poor optics.
Even with the support of the majority of farmers across the nation, the government will be seen bending to the stubbornness of the farmers of Punjab who want to ensure the status quo of disproportionate MSP allocation at the cost of other states and overflowing Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns.
Two, the softer stance of the government, even as the farmers continue to hijack the highway connecting the national capital to critical parts of Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, will be seen as a move to legitimise the ‘Shaheen Bagh model of policy paralysis’.
Three, the precedent this move sets. Like the protests at Shaheen Bagh in 2019-20, the protests in Singhu are rooted in misinformation and misinterpretation.
While the farmers questioned the government on the potential ceasing of the (minimum support prices) MSPs for the two-dozen odd crops, the government's farm laws had nothing to do with the MSP. The same was argued by the government before the Supreme Court as well.
The immediate concerns amongst more than 250 million voters of the democratically elected government are about the future of policymaking in India. Will the legislature's decision-making power be decided on roads by anarchists, blocking and hijacking Delhi in December every year?
The question of precedent must not have escaped the government as well.
While communicating its stance to its voters, the stakeholders, to farmers outside Punjab, and foreign investors will be a huge challenge for the government, it does corner the farmers of Punjab in more ways than one.
One, the farmers at Singhu have no reason to deny this proposal of the government.
While the MSP procurement from Punjab has only increased this year, the farmers have claimed they were not consulted before the drafting of the laws. The 18-24 months cooling-off period, proposed by the government, allows the farmers to discuss the farm laws, and the changes they may suggest.
Given the protesting farmers and intermediaries have not been able to voice any concern against the new farm laws, the government has a chance to expose the hypocrisy of the farmers of Punjab who have concentrated their entire agricultural economy on MSP procurement of wheat and paddy.
Two, the government gets time to nab the troublemakers at Singhu. In the hearing before the apex court, the government has stated that banned organisations have infiltrated the protest.
The cooling-off period gives the government time to nab the troublemakers, chase the money trail, and ensure that two years down the lane, the interests of the actual farmers and citizens of Punjab are not hijacked by middlemen and organisations funded by anti-national interests.
Clearly, the government is not in a position as of now to nab the troublemakers at Singhu without risking a law and order situation.
Assuming the farmers do agree to the delay in the implementation of the laws, the government gets time. Assuming the farmers do not agree to the proposal, they shall stand exposed, thus justifying a potential crackdown by the government.
Three, the cooling-off period could and should be used by the government to correct the disproportionate allocation of MSP procurement.
More than Delhi versus the farmers of Punjab, this is about the farmers of rest of India versus the farmers of Punjab. Why must the MSP allocation be favoured towards one state, given we have come a long way from the Green Revolution.
The government, by retreating, must expose the fragility of the agri-economy of Punjab that relies mainly on MSP procurement of wheat and paddy.
By offering to make MSP proportional to a state benchmark, the Centre can make an offer that the farmers of Punjab cannot refuse — the new laws or proportional MSP procurement.
Four, the government can avoid a developing law and order situation at Singhu. Politically, it is a sensible thing to do.
All said and done, the preparations at Singhu border are quite elaborate. The government which has gone before the apex court stating the presence of banned organisations should aim to resolve the deadlock without any political and perception costs.
Blame it on the initial failure of the intelligence or the waiting game of the government, the protesters have been able to mobilise all sorts of resources along the Grand Trunk Road from Singhu to Punjab.
Congress, for more than three decades, has not been able to shake off the ghosts of the Blue Star years. BJP would not want to repeat the same mistake.
Five, the government's implementation of the laws has already stayed. Therefore, it makes little sense for the government to continue having a threatening situation at the national capital border when the laws can’t be implemented anyway.
The 18-24 months period would ensure two things.
One, the protest at Singhu would be wrapped up for good, assuming the farmers agree, and two, the Supreme Court-mandated committee would have made its recommendations. Therefore, by aligning with the judiciary, the government has isolated the farmers even more.
Six, the state's political landscape may change for good by 2022. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to be the third-biggest party in the state, trailing the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Congress.
However, by proposing to suspend the laws temporarily, the BJP can again open negotiations with the SAD for a post-poll alliance, cornering the weakening Congress party in the state that has been unable to fulfil any promises made in the 2017 elections.
A changed political landscape may offer the government more leverage in dealing with the farmers in the future, given the SAD's closeness to the farmers. However, the BJP would be required to work overtime to ensure the shift of the Hindu voters in Punjab away from the Congress party.
Lastly, the government should use this time to introduce the reforms in the BJP-ruled states.
Starting with Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the government, in collaboration with state governments, must work overtime to get the laws implemented in the states.
Punjab farmers, with their declining water levels, are anyway not in a position to grow wheat and paddy for more than 10 years, and therefore, sooner or later, would have to accept the role of the private sector and diversified crop patterns.
However, for now, the state would lose out on critical private sector investments in its agriculture sector as other states march ahead.
The government, at one end, is dealing with a misinformed yet politically volatile group of farmers, unprecedented law and order situation. On the other, it must cater to the interests of farmers across the country while setting the right precedent for policymaking.
However, by choosing to take a step back, the government has ensured its next steps forward are relatively easier. For the farmers, the proposal is the last face-saving opportunity. By agreeing to this, they can come across as winners, at least in the short-term. By rejecting the proposal, however, they are hurting their short and long-term interests.
The move by the government checks the farmers, but can the Modi regime checkmate these anarchists for good?
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