The farmers’ protests are the biggest political threat Modi has seen

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The borders between Delhi and that of two adjoining states, by all accounts, resemble a conflict zone with fencing, barricades, coils of barbed wire, iron spikes cemented to the ground and scores of security personnel manning them. All of it was erected by the government to keep away protesting farmers from the Indian capital.

For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under prime minister Narendra Modi, the protests are the latest, and arguably the biggest, challenge to its authority.

After initially appearing to be conciliatory and holding several rounds of talks with the agitating farmers, the government has stepped back and let the protests be – possibly hoping that the steam will run out and that the farmers will return to their homes.

But contrary to the government’s hopes, the protests have intensified. More farmers, in their thousands, have joined in and there is no way of knowing which way the agitation will turn.

Negotiations reach a stalemate

The protests have turned out to be extraordinary in several ways. Farmers – across all classes – are out on the streets in full force, along with their families including scores of women and children.

According to eyewitnesses, the anger is palpable and they are determined to fight to the finish. Hundreds of thousands of farming families take turns to be at the protest site and it is working with rare efficiency despite the biting cold.

Their demand is for the repeal of three farm laws passed by the Modi government in August last year. The laws open up India’s vast agricultural economy to the private sector enabling corporates to directly buy farm produce and allows private companies to stock essential commodities like wheat and rice without any limit. The third law allows private players to directly sign deals with farmers away from the gaze of government regulators.

The government terms these laws necessary as part of agricultural reforms which will enrich farmers and release the enormous potential of this sector.

But the protesters are not buying into the government’s view.

According to them, undermining government regulators and supervisors will expose farmers to the volatility of the market. The Minimum Support Price (MSP), which the government announces every season to ensure that farmers don’t run into losses, will effectively become redundant and they fear that private corporations will drive down prices.

To begin with, the farmers demanded that the MSP be turned into a law as a guarantee that corporations wouldn’t indulge in price undercutting. The government refused and the farmers hardened their stance asking for the cancellation of all three new laws.

Despite holding eleven rounds of talks with the farmers’ unions, the government has been unable to convince them to give up their protests. The discussions have boiled down to one basic demand: repeal the laws.

The Supreme Court of India, in response to a petition, intervened and named a committee of four individuals linked to the agricultural domain to try resolve the stalemate. But the farmers rejected the committee as, according to them, all four were individuals who had on earlier occasions supported the new farm laws.

The government offered to suspend the implementation of the three laws for 18 months to give time for a resolution. But the farmers rejected the offer on the grounds that there is no legal option to keep the laws in abeyance, and that they wouldn’t take the government on its word.

Protesters are in for the long haul

The protests are being spearheaded by two umbrella bodies of farmers that in turn make up nearly 300 farmers’ groups across the country. And these unions are ideologically diverse, ranging from ones led by left parties to centrist-liberal groups that have worked among peasants for decades.

Having carefully organised and planned the protests, the farmers committed one serious blunder on January 26, India’s Republic Day, when a planned tractor rally into Delhi went awry. A section of renegade farmers broke away from the pre-decided route and stormed Red Fort, a high-profile structure that over the years has come to symbolise India’s nationhood.

It is here that the prime minister traditionally hoists the national flag and addresses the nation on India’s independence day.

The farmers forced their way into the Red Fort and hoisted the flag of the Sikh community near the one where the national tricolour was fluttering. The government and many across the political spectrum frowned on the farmers’ actions. The Modi government attempted to use the farmers’ misstep and public condemnation by sending in security forces to evict the protesters from the border.

However, the farmers’ unions themselves criticised those who had stormed the Red Fort and claimed that it was an attempt by sections close to the ruling BJP that tried to sabotage the protests. Once the farmers realised their agitation was in danger they flocked back to the Delhi borders in their thousands, pre-empting the security forces from evicting them.

According to the latest reports, more farmers have now turned out at the protest sites compared to before January 26. And farm leaders have categorically stated they are in it for the long haul. Reports quoting Rakesh Tikait, one of the leaders, said they “will not go back home until the laws are taken back.”

For the Modi government, the situation is tricky as one wrong move can hurt its chances of returning to power in 2024. There is no immediate threat as the ruling BJP has a comfortable majority in the Lower House of Parliament. Of the 543 seats, it holds 303 – well above the halfway mark of 272.

But the challenge to the BJP is in the long-term, as public perception about the government will matter. Elections in at least four state assemblies are scheduled in a couple of months. They may prove an indicator on which way popular opinion is moving over the farmers’ issue.

Besides the farm laws themselves, questions have been raised over the urgency in the manner in which the farm laws were passed in parliament.

Despite the long-term implications of the three farm laws, which seek to overhaul India’s agriculture economy, the government rushed the laws through without adequate discussion.

Agriculture under the Indian Constitution is a state subject and, some experts say, the federal government may have exceeded its mandate by passing the three laws.

Though farmers in their thousands from the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have been in attendance for the protests, others from farming communities in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala too have come out periodically in their own states in support.

The government would like its supporters to believe that the protests are restricted to one state – Punjab. But its pan-Indian character is there for anyone to see.

The situation, undoubtedly, is tense. Despite the veneer of a peaceful protest, the government knows it has to promptly handle the protests lest it blows up on its political fortunes.

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