The decision by protesting farmers to not accept the government’s offer to defer the farm Acts could be the first misstep in what has so far been the most meticulously planned, responsible and peaceful mass demonstration that India has seen in recent times.
More than the number of people mobilised at the Singhu and Tikri borders, it was their discipline and organisation that demonstrated the strength of the movement and the support it commanded. It is these, rather than the implied threat of violence, that has made the government pull back.
All of this immense accretion of credibility and respect is under threat today because, for the first time, the farmers were split on whether to accept the government’s offer of an 18-month stay or not. The longer the split lasts, the more the farmers’ movement will lose its moral ascendancy in the eyes of a public that has been almost solidly behind it so far. The more that happens, the more will the accusations of the Modi bhakts in the BJP and the media, that this is a movement fuelled by an irresponsible political opposition, backed by Khalistanis, begin to sound credible to the common, apolitical public.
An even greater threat from the failure to arrive at an agreement is it will increase the possibility of a violent confrontation between the Delhi police and the farmers on January 26. This is something that the farmers cannot afford, now that the government has put the farm Acts on hold, because it will cost them much of the public support they now enjoy.
But there is an even greater price that the country will have to pay if the farmers do not accept the government’s offer. This will be a substantial weakening of the RSS in relation to Modi and his extremist base of support in the Sangh parivar. This is because the government’s decision to stay the implementation of its farm Acts by 18 months did not emerge from second thoughts that Modi may have had on it, but from an unambiguous directive issued by the RSS.
The government’s decision came within 24 hours of a categorical statement by RSS general secretary Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi, the second-in command in the organisation, that “a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.
Bhaiyyaji’s statement needs to be read in full to appreciate its significance:
“Democracy provides an opportunity to both sides. I consider both sides right (in) their place. Agitators must consider that whatever they can get through dialogue, they must accept. The government must think about what more it can give. …So it is important to find that point where the two sides can agree and the agitation can end. Any agitation running for long is not beneficial. No one should have a problem with an agitation taking place. But a middle ground must be found. An agitation does not just affect people associated with it, but also impacts society, directly or indirectly. It is not good for the health of society for any agitation to run for too long. So a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.
As significant as the contents of the statement is how and to whom Bhaiyyaji gave it – in an interview to the Indian Express, a newspaper not known for its support to this government or the ideology that propels it.
Joshi went on to advise moderation to the farmers:
“Whenever a discussion is held, there can’t be an argument that my position is non-negotiable…The government is repeatedly saying we are ready to discuss, but (the protesters) are saying any discussion will take place only after the laws are repealed. How will a discussion take place like that. ..I believe farmers must have a discussion with the government over issues they have with the laws… There should be a positive initiative from both sides. If agitators also take a positive approach it will be good.”
It is against this remarkably candid reproach of its own government that the farmers need to determine their future course today. That this was not just another appeal being made from behind a veil of seeming impartiality, to put the farmers in the wrong, became clear when the government postponed the implementation of the farm laws by not a few weeks or even months but a year and a half. This is as close as any democratic government can come to admitting that it had made a mistake. To ask it to do more is to ask for the moon.
The political significance of the RSS’s intervention goes beyond the farmers’ struggle. It is a reminder to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that even if he does not consider himself to be accountable to the public, he remains accountable to the organisation to which he owes his present position. And that organisation did not appreciate his haste in announcing new decisions, and rushing new laws through parliament, without going through the process of consultation, with the party, the parliament and the public, which is the essence of democracy.
One swallow does not a summer make, but the possibility that Bhaiyyaji’s admonition is only the tip of a larger iceberg of dissatisfaction with this government’s performance cannot be ruled out. For the RSS’s credo, which is drilled into every pracharak during its orientation programmes in Nagpur, is to work quietly behind the scenes, and avoid the limelight at almost any cost. This is a credo that Modi began rebelling against in various small ways soon after the RSS made him its pracharak for the Gujarat unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad more than two decades ago.
It was only his organisational capacity, his irreproachable financial integrity and, regrettably, his handling of the riots in 2002, that kept him in its good books. But since he became the prime minister, the drawbacks of his personality – his haste, impetuosity and constant thirst for acclamation – have become more of a liability than an asset.
After Modi became prime minister, the RSS almost certainly did not expect to be consulted on every action of the government, for that would have gone against its entire credo of being a social organisation whose purpose was the revival and glorification of Bharat Mata. But Modi’s relentless presentation of every major decision of the government as his and his alone with neither consultation before nor credit shared afterwards, could not have failed to disturb the parent organisation.
Despite the increasingly frequent blowback from Modi’s hasty decisions, the RSS stayed clear of intervening so long as these remained broadly within the parameters of Hindutva ideology, and of its stated political aims. Thus, Modi’s tacit support through silence of programmes like love jihad, gau raksha and ghar wapsi; his party and government’s determination to ensure that no one accused of a communal atrocity ever faced punishment; his determination to push “illegal” Muslim immigrants out of Assam and India no matter what the cost; his open invitation to RSS and BJP cadres to ‘help’ the police to break up the Shaheen Bagh satyagraha movement, which resulted in the North East Delhi massacres; and his abrogation of Article 370 after brutally crushing political and civil society activity in the state, drew no criticism from the parent organisation.
But RSS could scarcely have remained unaffected by his other blunders: his jump-the-gun demonetisation of 86% of the currency in November 2016 which forced most of 150 million migrant workers to stop work in the cities and go home when the facility for converting old currency notes for new ran out on December 31, and the new notes were not even ready for dispensation; his equally hasty and ill-planned introduction of the Goods and Services Tax and, finally his eagerness to be the first country to declare a lockdown against COVID-19 without his even realising that this would destroy hundreds of millions of livelihoods, and force ten million or more persons to start walking or cycling home to villages from 60 to 2,000 km away in the heat of summer.
Finally, it would be surprising indeed if some, at least, in the RSS have not realised that Modi’s determination not to enter into discussions with the Chinese, and his systematic turning of economic screws on China’s trade and investment with India, are pushing the two countries ever closer to a war in the Himalayas that India can only lose.
If my analysis above is correct, then the RSS has broken its silence on the farmers’ struggle not only because this is the first mass movement that truly has no ideological, political or anti-nationalist moorings, that because it has been triggered by the first hasty action of Modi government that it cannot justify by invoking a policy espoused earlier by the Sangh parivar.
That is why it is imperative for the farmers’ movement to accept his government’s offer to stay the farm Acts and enter into a serious discussion of how they can be revised to get the best instead of the worst out of them. Needless to say, any meaningful discussion of this nature needs to be held within accepted parameters.
The first and most important of these is that the agreed reforms must be left to the state governments to implement. Agro-climatic conditions are simply too diverse in India to permit any-one-size-fits-all solutions. So every state will have to decide how to implement them within the constraints these impose.
Secondly, inter-state trade needs to be opened to the private sector, but once more, at a pace and in products that that is left to the states to decide.
Thirdly, farmers, particularly those who produce perishable crops, need to be empowered in various ways to increase their bargaining power against the traders. This requires the rapid creation of essential rural infrastructure – notably the provision of 24×7 power to facilitate the creation of village-level cold storages, and the creation of small bank branches in villages above a minimum size, for prompt dispersal of credit.
Lastly, the opening of export trade must be closely correlated with the establishment of buffer stocks of vegetables and dairy products in particular, that prevent the shocks caused by sudden natural disasters, such as drought or unseasonal rain, from falling solely upon domestic supply and prices.
These are only the most essential first steps towards compensating farmers for the prolonged neglect they have suffered from our urban-centred planners and administrators. If the farmers’ struggle ends by bringing these to the forefront of policy and shifting the priorities of planned investment, it will have more than fulfilled its purpose.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.