For long, the farmers’ agitation against the agri laws had evoked sympathy, and even had popular support among swathes of the Indian population. The poor, helpless farmer was seen taking on the might of the all-powerful central government – and never mind that most people don’t understand the basics, the nuances of the farm laws. Many just saw it as a David vs. Goliath battle, the helpless farmer being further disempowered by the powerful ruling class.
This, in itself, is remarkable, an outpouring of support for the farmers when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is ranged on the other side – a popular leader, who has won two elections for the ruling NDA. But the images of the poor farmer protesting first in the Delhi heat, and then in the biting winter months – many farmers even losing their lives – moved many, to the point that the real issues at stake in the entire standoff faded into the background.
“I don’t understand the farm laws, but I support the farmers’ movement anyway,” a journalist-friend once confessed to me honestly. That perhaps echoed the sentiments of many Indians. Had the farmers’ movement not been overtaken by the Covid-19 second wave, it may have grown in popularity, becoming very inconvenient for the Centre ahead of crucial assembly polls next year.
“Right to Protest Can’t be Anytime and Anywhere”
I don’t intend to get drawn into a debate on the farm laws here – we have done plenty of those debates on the India Ahead network – but want to make a broader point here. The farmers have a right to protest for as long as they want but have to fundamentally realise that the maximalist position taken by them – scrap the laws or else… – may eventually end up eroding the popular support their movement seemed to have at one point. Let me build on this argument.
Now, the farmers plan to protest outside Parliament from July 19. But a few things stand out in the entire controversy. Farmers have a right to protest peacefully, guaranteed under the right to freedom of speech and expression in the Constitution (Article 19). “But the right to protest cannot be anytime and anywhere,” the Supreme Court had pointed in the Shaheen Bagh case. So, the farmers can continue to protest in some designated place, but can’t stop the Indian state from going about its business.
At this point, the farmers have taken the “my way or the highway” stand, even spurning the Supreme Court-appointed committee. Regardless of the merits and demerits of the farm laws, that’s an extraordinary stance to take. Democracy is all about the fine art of negotiations and building a consensus and not forcing a point of view on the entire nation.
Farmers Must Confront Mr Modi in Elections
So, I believe, the farmers must unabashedly convert their agitation into a political movement. True change in a democracy can only come through the ballot, after all. Farmer leaders have claimed theirs is an apolitical movement, but now they are openly hobnobbing with opposition leaders. Nothing wrong with that – after all, they’ll root for the politicians who support their point of view.
But until the farmers can shake – even uproot – the Modi government, they have to play the waiting game, realise they can’t force their decision on the Indian state and a democratically elected government.
In fact, elections in Punjab (food bowl of the country) and Uttar Pradesh next year are an opportunity for the agitating farmers to demonstrate to the Modi government that they are the voice of the impoverished farmer in India. And a crushing defeat in these states will force the government to eat the humble pie and rethink the farm laws – which politician can dare to take on the collective might of farmers in a country where 70% of the population still depends on agriculture for its livelihood.
The Government Has to Decide
Finally, who decides what’s wrong or right? Beyond a point, it’s the government which takes a call on important policy decisions because it represents the collective will of the people in a democracy. The farmers can convert the agitation into a political movement and get the BJP voted out in assemblies and Parliament. But until then, the government must decide or we will descend into chaos.
(Rishi Joshi is an Executive Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.)