The ongoing farmers' protests in several states across India's geographical diversity is the first major non-sectarian mass movement confronting the Narendra Modi government. Unless handled adroitly, the stir has the potential to throw up a major challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi's political dominance.
The ruling establishment must accept that being on a perpetual promissory mode is fraught with dangers. Since he launched the high voltage prime ministerial campaign in 2013, Modi remained in perpetual dream-merchant mode, promising endless undertakings. Inability to deliver such pledges is now beginning to catch up for the first time.
The political crisis confronting the government has been compounded by the first evidence of a fissure between it and the Reserve Bank of India. The statement of RBI Governor Urjit Patel on Wednesday that loan waivers add to the risk of fiscal slippage, shrinks dramatically Modi's negotiating space. Though Patel voiced skepticism earlier in the wake of the loan waiver announcement by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, his latest observation couldn't have come at a more inopportune time.
The ruling establishment must accept that being on a perpetual promissory mode is fraught with dangers
In a polity where discourse is greatly shaped by television, cries of anguish, duly orchestrated by channels, resonate deep and wide. Since it came to power, this government encouraged a style of news coverage that promotes sentimental nationalism. Death of Indian soldiers and its aftermath are routinely covered by TV as spectacle. Mothers and widows of the deceased are interviewed probingly and a loop is created of their wailings.
This form of TV news is now ricocheting on the BJP as channels depict women wailing for their 'shaheed' sons and husbands. The self-created pressure of labelling the dead farmers does not spare even Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who called them martyrs. Of what cause and in protest of whose government?
Farmers are not the 'other' that can be demonised by militarist or muscular nationalism. Farmers are not human-rights activists or 'sickularists' who are constantly arraigned as anti-nationals. Farmers are not members of a religious minority who allegedly do not ascribe to the dominant culture of the nation. They are not foreign-funded NGOs who disrupt government by expressing empathy with the downtrodden and agitating people.
Farmers are not human-rights activists or 'sickularists' who are constantly arraigned as anti-nationals
Farmers are also not gathering to seek repealing of laws which give security and armed forces the right to quash the fundamental rights of the people. Farmers are instead intended to be the main beneficiaries of an egalitarian order that Modi proclaims as his credo. Farmers—big, medium and small—are the custodians of our granaries and must be applauded for continuing to stick on, despite the odds stacked against them.
The opposition, which, till the other day, was derided by BJP spokespersons as a bunglers' club is suddenly accused of having the capacity to destablise the nation. Attempts to prevent Rahul Gandhi from reaching the troubled spots, Mandsaur now and Saharanpur a few days earlier, are akin to putting a person on life-support systems. It is up to the scion or other opposition leaders to capitalise on the political opening that the farmers have provided.
A few weeks ago when TV channels were hosting 'events' to mark three years of the Modi government, Janata Dal (U) leader KC Tyagi, a weather-beaten politician from the yore, was asked about why the opposition parties had failed to build a single mass agitation or movement, even on a issue like demonetisation, which had a paralysing effect on the lives of ordinary people. He replied that rare is the case that a jan andolan can be imposed from the above; it must always emerge from below. Thereafter, it is up to the vipaksh, whether they can capitalise on it or not.
It is up to the scion or other opposition leaders to capitalise on the political opening that the farmers have provided
In the last few days a beginning has been made and the Modi government has been demonstrated as being fallible like any establishment. The present phase of farmers agitation may peter out over the next few days or spread like wildfire. But even if the BJP government succeeds in dousing the flames by offering sops, such a move would prove that the party is likely to negotiate in the face of serious challenge.
Compared to the tough, 'no dialogue' stance on contentious political issues, this will be a comedown and demonstrate that beneath his tough exterior, Modi too can be forced to grant an extra quarter.
The farmers' strife in Madhya Pradesh should be all the more worrying for Modi and his party because the state did not have poor monsoons last year. Instead, it was blessed with a bumper crop. Madhya Pradesh is also not a poor state and has registered high agricultural growth over the past several years. The agitating farmers are not the poorest in the state.
Yet, it is estimated that in the past one year, every five hours one farmer committed suicide in the state due to distress stemming from accumulated loans and the glut in the market. The government has to give serious thought why, in state after state, bumper production is proving itself to be a bane for farmers.
The farmers' strife in Madhya Pradesh should be all the more worrying for Modi and his party because the state did not have poor monsoons last year
Indian agricultural policy has focused on effective means to increase crop yield and not on addressing farmers' livelihood concerns. The government's fiscal health has been its principal worry, not the farmers' balance sheets. The policy of announcing loan waivers periodically is faulty, to say the least. Deeper analysis is required to comprehend why farmers require loans in the first place and then examine reasons for repeated default.
It's a bitter truth that they have no money initially and subsequently, they are unable to recover costs with their produce. Agriculture, in the current situation is mostly a loss-making vocation. The BJP promised to implement recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission, most importantly the suggestion to ensure a minimum of 50% profits over the cost of production. This assurance by Modi was clearly aimed at wooing the farmers. Unless a comprehensive strategy to ameliorate the lot of farmers is formulated, the BJP will pay a heavy political price for its deceit.
Modi can lose sight at his own risk. The BJP's traditional support base does not lie in rural India and among farmers. Yet, they voted for the party in heavy numbers mainly on the strength of Modi's promises and his mesmerising presence. Three years is a long period to initiate steps that provide evidence of the government's sincerity. Farmers are clearly a disgruntled lot and accusing them of taking cues from the opposition will indicate the BJP is behaving like the proverbial ostrich.
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