Farmers' Protests: With Emotional Appeal Running High, Modi Govt Has Lost the Plot

Over the years, the BJP has perfected the art of fizzling out democratic agitations by maligning protestors and projecting them as "anti-nationals", but with farmers' protests, the government is at a loss.

New Delhi: The union government’s climbdown on a number of contentious clauses in the newly-framed farm laws has only reinforced the perception that the Narendra Modi-led Centre prefers agitations over consultations.

Over the last few years, the ruling BJP’s non-consultative approach has precipitated multiple agitations. Yet, it has been fairly successful in using these as opportunities to polarise opinion and consolidate its rank and file, supporters, and fence-sitters by investing its political energy and monetary might.

In that respect, the unanimous rejection of the government’s proposal to reconsider the farm laws by ideologically-competing farmers’ unions marks a watershed moment in six-year-long tenure of Modi as prime minister. 

 Modi’s Achilles heel?

The BJP machinery’s response to the farmers’ protests has only been uncertain until now. The union government, on the other hand, has only been uncertain on how to deal with the protest. Having taken aback by a sustained, organised campaign, and protest against the laws, government officials and ministers have shown their readiness for negotiations with the farmers. But, at the same time, the BJP, its supporters, and pliant media platforms have sought to defame farmers movement initially by labelling them as “Khalistanis”, and now projecting it is “Naxal-influenced”.

File photo of Punjab farmers protesting against the farm Bills. Photo: PTI/Files

Farmers unions, on the other hand, have been unconcerned about what they see as “BJP’s propaganda”. They have already conveyed to the Centre that they will not settle for anything less than a complete repeal of the laws, and have even threatened to intensify their agitations in the days to come. 

All of these only signify that the saffron party has struggled to polarise political narrative around the farmers’ protests in its favour. The BJP hasn’t had much trouble in spinning previous such agitations, which were borne out of the Centre’s visibly undemocratic attitude, within its politics of Hindutva.

Also read: Life Threats, Insults, Promises of Revenge: How BJP Leaders Reacted to Anti-CAA Protests

It predictably painted, although without any evidence, the Muslim leadership in the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, National Register of Citizens, and National Population Register as “anti-national”. Similarly, the protests against a hurriedly-implemented Goods and Services Tax (GST) were also served to the public by the BJP as having vested political interests.

Such was the level of government’s unilateralism that one can easily find lower-level bureaucracy complaining about difficulties in implementing the constantly-changing rules. Then again, the imminent protests against the sudden revocation of the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir was silenced by brute force. There are multiple such small and big examples in which the union government before taking decisions with farreaching implications hasn’t kept important stakeholders in the loop.

Precisely for this reason, the farmers associations have been reluctant to view Centre’s assurances in a positive light. By bringing in three highly-contentious farm laws without draft Bills for discussion, then mooting the final bill discreetly during the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic, and then eventually bulldozing the passage of the laws in the Parliament, the Centre has left no room for itself to bring farmers on its side.

Moreover, the BJP has attempted to malign the farmers’ movement as having vested political interests but it hasn’t worked in its favour to the extent it did in earlier agitations. The farmers’ movement cuts across caste, class, religious identities, and has garnered both national and international support. The BJP, as a result, has only struggled to easily bracket the movement as one or another. 

Deep distrust for the government

The determined pushback of the farmers, despite assurances by the Centre, has signalled a deep mistrust of the government. In fact, most of the unions told The Wire that the Centre’s assurances are more to play and divide the movement instead of reconsidering its allegedly “pro-corporate” approach. And, that is why the Centre’s proposal has been unanimously rejected.  

On the other hand, this distrust itself has provoked a substantial section of farmer unions to come forward to show solidarity with some of the previous agitations and democratic movements which the BJP machinery had painted as either “anti-national”, or “urban naxal-led”, but which they think have been the result of Modi government’s similar “authoritarian” attitude.

Police make a human barricade to stop various farmers organisations protesting three new farm laws from marching to New Delhi, in Hisar, November 25, 2020. Photo: PTI

In fact, the largest farmers union among the 32 such associations which are leading the farmers’ agitation, BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan), feels that it is time that all democratic forces come together and that the movement has to become as inclusive as possible without losing the primacy of its original demands.

Ever since a section of farmers’ unions have made this larger democratic appeal to show, and also seek, support from other protesting groups, a significant number of commentators feel that this may dilute the original character of the movement.

Also read: ‘Won’t Pursue Narrow Interests’: Farmers’ Union Explains Why it is Demanding Jailed Activists’ Release

However, the farmers’ unions do not feel so. While only some unions may have come in open support for political prisoners and other agitations, the others who have not openly said so too believe that the Centre is “authoritarian”, and would agree on the point of how dissent is being systematically crushed by the Modi-led government. 

It is precisely because of this coming-together of ideologically-competing organisations that farmers’ agitation has had a visible impact. Any farmer leader camping at the Delhi borders would tell you that they are not bothered with such criticism as they have been consistent in their demands, and have come prepared for a long haul. “The government has been trying to malign us, and will do so in the future” is a constant refrain among farmer leaders. 

Moreover, commentators seem to ignore that protest movements are rooted centrally in emotion. Anyone with even a slight familiarity with protest movements would know that protests are not homogenous, and most of them emerge out of deep emotional anguish when stakeholders are pushed to the wall. Organising movements are definitely not like contesting elections in which political parties strategise in each and every constituency according to its demographic make-up, caste calculations, and winnability of candidates. These factors rarely impact the progress of protest movements. 

In fact, organised agitations often become a common pad for different groups, identities, and individuals – who have often competed with each other, both ideologically and otherwise. The ongoing farmers’ movement against allegedly pro-corporate farm laws has become one such example of how organisations across the ideological spectrum – from Left to Right – have come together to resist what all of them commonly see as the Modi government’s biggest strike on the state-protected agricultural system.  

“Modi ji had said he will double farmers’ incomes. He said he will implement [M.S.] Swaminathan commission’s report. Did it happen? Why should we believe him,” a farmer told The Wire at Tikri border. 

Also read: Success of Farmers’ Protest Renews Hope in the Politics of Mass Mobilisation

“Our lands are under attack. We will die saving them,” said another.

“Even if we have to sit here [Delhi border] until 2024, we will not budge. It is a fight for justice,” said another middle-aged farmer. 

“I have come back from New Zealand to support my family members in the protest. We can’t let corporations control our land,” said a young lad at Tikri border.

Apni kamaai, apni zameen (Our income, our land),” read one poster at a farmers’ camp. 

Aaj zameen, kal insaan (It is our land under attack today, tomorrow it will be us),” a farmer from Patiala told The Wire.

“We are farmers. Don’t call us terrorists,” read one placard addressed to “Godi media”.  

Emotional responses pervade the air at Delhi borders. The more one meets people there, the more one hears such outbursts of deep anger against the government.  

Yet, the movement is not devoid of strategy. That so many farmer groups – all active in different regions with different social contexts – could find a common agenda in the movement, and have largely stuck to that middle ground, reflects its effectiveness. The BJP will have to deal with this emotional unity in the farmers’ movement before it pulls another trick to put it down.