It is amazing that so many were taken aback by the fact that the agitating farmers broke their word to the Delhi Police and, instead of sticking to the agreed route for their tractor march, broke all the barricades to prevent them from coming into the capital, tried to mow down policemen who blocked their way, and even managed to reach the Red Fort to unfurl a flag of their own. The farmers have always had a maximalist agenda and have made no secret of their double-speak.
One on the one hand, the farmers spoke of wanting to repeal the new farm laws because, they argued, the Centre had no role in making laws on a subject the Constitution reserves for state governments. And yet, they wanted a legislative guarantee that the same Centre would keep buying grain from them at the MSP for all time to come! A Constitutional amendment in the 1950s, as it happens, allowed the Centre to make certain laws on state subjects, but one of the arguments the farmers and their supporters make is that the Centre cannot be interfering in matters reserved for the states. In which case, how were they expecting that the Centre will continue to spend Rs 2.5 lakh crore a year – indeed, increase it dramatically – on MSP-based procurement and another Rs 1 lakh crore or thereabouts on fertilizer subsides? That the benefits from this are cornered by a small section of farmers – like the ones in Punjab – it appears, never crossed the minds of the farmers or their supporters.
Indeed, while the agitation had the support of the Captain Amarinder Singh government, some of his supporters started saying several months ago that he had no control over the movement; indeed, they added, even the farmer leaders were not in control since more hardline farmers were driving the agenda. That is also why, when the Narendra Modi-government made the ill-advised offer to keep the farm laws in abeyance for 18 months while a committee which included farmers tried to address their concerns, instead of accepting it with alacrity, the farm unions said they would discuss it with their members.
Hardly surprising, then, that after some groups – presumably, they were the moderate face of the agitation – agreed on a route for the tractor march and agreed that this would begin after the Republic Day parade was over, a larger number of farmers broke the rules early on Tuesday; and once the violence was over, playing to their script, some unions said those indulging in violence were not their members while others have blamed anti-social elements for hijacking the protest.
Indeed, as this newspaper has been arguing, since there is no one over-arching union – and the Punjab chief minister has refused to formally represent the farmers – it was never clear who the Central government thought it was negotiating with and who was going to ensure that, were an agreement reached, the farmers honoured their side of the deal. So, while the Centre gave in on both the proposed changes in electricity laws as well as the ban on stubble-burning during the early rounds of negotiations, the farmers accepted this as their right, and kept pressing for the repeal of the laws along with a legislatively guaranteed MSP-based procurement.
What is equally puzzling is the talk, after the farmers stormed the capital, of an intelligence failure; why didn’t the Delhi Police, several are asking, anticipate the farmers would break the rules? Hindsight is a powerful ally, but those asking the question need to ponder over what they thought the Delhi Police should have done had there not been an ‘intelligence failure’. Since the barricades that the police put up did not stop the rampaging farmers, clearly stronger measures were called for. But what was the Delhi Police or the Central government expected to do? Putting tanks on all approach roads to Delhi was one solution, but it would have invited comparisons with Tiananmen Square; a greater use of force could have been tried, but even the death of one farmer threatens to snowball into something bigger even though it appears the police action was quite restrained.
While the Modi government now has to figure out how it will get the agitating farmers to back down, especially now that they have tasted even more blood and know that the government is on the backfoot, there is a larger lesson here. For one, it is clear the government has completely failed to communicate that the protest was primarily about the Punjab farmers wanting to ensure they continued to corner the lion’s share of central government subsidies (read https://bit.ly/3qP52Aj for some details). Many continue to argue that the problem lay in the haste with which the Bills were rushed through Parliament, and the lack of debate in the House. What they do not talk of, however, is whether, had the Bills not been rushed and if there was a longer debate – which would have happened if Modi had more MPs in the Rajya Sabha – the Punjab farmers would have tolerated any attempt to lower their share of subsidies? Instead of getting guaranteed purchases of their crop at a fixed price, would the Punjab farmer agree to, like 90-95% of farmers across the country, sell his crop at wildly fluctuating market prices?
Modi has not cut into their subsidies so fare, it is true, but if the reforms had been carried out to their logical conclusion, ovr time, fertilizer subsidies would have to be distributed even across all farmers in the country, the MSP would have had to be fixed so as to ensure farmers from West Bengal and Bihar also benefitted; at a macro level, subsidies would have to make way for capital expenditure – as on irrigation, warehouses etc – which benefits more farmers.
The point being missed in all the talk of how farmers needed to be taken along is that genuine reform cannot be done with everyone’s consent. Reforms are about removing the status quo, whoever is losing his/her benefits will always cry out while those benefitting never come together to support the change. This is universally true, whether it is India Inc when then prime minister Manmohan Singh slashed import duties, the agitating farmers of Punjab now or the employees of PSUs – like BSNL and Air India – that continue to bleed the taxpayer; the moment the benefits are curtailed, the opposition to them builds up. If prime minister Modi is serious about reforms, he must be prepared to face a lot of opposition, exactly as his predecessors who reformed had to face. It is true, the opposition didn’t storm the capital before, but that’s the price we pay for delaying reforms for decades. The fact that his take-no-prisoners approach has alienated most political parties, including former allies, hasn’t helped either since many of the traditional peacemakers are no longer batting for him.