The Political Fix: Three ways to understand the massive farmer protests taking on Modi in Delhi
A newsletter on Indian politics and policy from Scroll.in.
The Big Story: Hindsight
For the second December in a row, as temperatures plunge in India’s national capital, tens of thousands of people are out on the streets in Delhi to protest laws passed by Parliament that they believe are unjust.
Farmers, primarily from Punjab but a great many from other states too, have been blockading a number of the roads entering the capital for 19 days now. Thousands of tractors are jamming traffic into Delhi. And the crowds are growing.
As the Indian Express reported:
“At Singhu border on Saturday, a new truck or trolley kept arriving every few minutes – hundreds of vehicles have been making their way from several Punjab districts, via different routes, so they are not stopped at state borders. By Sunday, over 1,500 vehicles are expected to make their way to the Delhi border…
The Delhi Police said more than 10,000 protesters are at Tikri border. At the Singhu border, police said around 17,000 protesters had gathered as of Friday. Meanwhile, farmers from South Haryana and Rajasthan, who intend to join protesters in Delhi, will be gathering in Rajasthan by Saturday evening and moving towards the capital Sunday morning.”
The protests have continued despite several rounds of talks between the government and the farmer groups on the three new farm bills that deregulate the sector and were touted as Indian agriculture’s “1991 moment”.
What you need to know about the three farm bills – and how they were passed amid chaos in Parliament
Many of the farmer groups are prepared for the long haul, bringing along food stocks to last several months, receiving relief and support from home and locals – and even setting up a makeshift gym. The government, after saying it was willing to make some significant alterations to the laws, has insisted it is open to talks. The farmer groups, however, are demanding a full repeal of the legislations.
So, nearly two weeks in, how should we look at the farmer protests?
The story has dominated headlines over the last few weeks, so there are numerous angles to consider – including remarkably petty ones pushed by pro-government observers about whether eating pizza at a protest is somehow proof of its hollowness.
Here are three lenses through which to view the agitation:
The 1-year view
In December 2019, about half a year after Modi was re-elected prime minister with an even bigger mandate than in 2014, hundreds of thousands of Indians took to the streets to protest again changes to the Citizenship Act that were seen as discriminating against Muslims.
The Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens protests were a unique moment in Indian history, not least because in many cases they were led by Muslim women and embodied a public articulation of constitutional values and inclusivity.
In return, protesters were demonised by pro-government media as terrorists, vilified for eating biryani – a Muslim dog-whistle – at the sit-ins that popped up around the country and subject to police brutality and inflammatory counter-agitation from the Bharatiya Janata Party that sparked off religious violence in North East Delhi.
For more, see the new Scroll.in series on the CAA protests, one year later.
There have been some similarities to the government’s responses to both agitations. The infamous Bharatiya Janata Party IT Cell – its online troll army – has sought to vilify the farmers as Khalistani separatists and rich middlemen rather than real peasants. In Haryana, security forces used tear gas and water cannons in the hopes of stopping the protesters from reaching Delhi, though this was still mild compared to the way Uttar Pradesh Police simply shot dead people demonstrating against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Over the last few days, as the farmers have hardened their stance and called for protests to intensify, the government has begun pushing the line that they too have been infilitrated by left-wing extremists and are being “taken advantage of” by what the BJP calls the “tukde tukde gang” or separatists.
But the differences are instructive. At no point did the government hold talks with those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Though Home Minister Amit Shah stopped making promises to implement the controversial National Register of Citizens, there was no question of any concession or alteration to the law.
Two factors are important here:
The CAA protests were led by Muslims, a constituency that the BJP does not expect to draw votes from, and supported by the liberal intellectual class that it opposes. Farmers, however, are crucial to the BJP’s electoral hopes. The current agitation threatens the party’s coalition government in Haryana.
The other key element is that the polarising element of the government’s CAA and NRC talk was a feature, not a bug of the strategy. Actual beneficiaries of the amended Citizenship Act were expected to be small in number. The larger aim was the message it sent about who truly deserves to be a citizen of the country, leaving out Muslims.
The farmer protest is more complex. The BJP does not want to antagonise the broader community, but it believes the reforms will unlock development and economic growth, whether or not the benefits mostly accrue to large corporations. And so it has been willing to talk to the farmers, but unprepared – so far – to shelve the laws altogether.
The 5-year view
The similarities are uncanny. One year after being elected with a huge mandate, Modi miscalculates how much political capital he actually has and pushes a pro-business reform that antagonises farmers.
In 2015, that meant that Modi and the BJP dropped their attempt to change land acquisition laws that were seen as too cumbersome for businesses, after Opposition taunts of a “suit-boot sarkar” (i.e. government of the rich) struck home.
The 2015 miscalculation is now widely believed to have led to a change in political strategy from Modi’s administration, which moved its focus to welfare efforts, cultural warfare – as well as out-of-the-blue surprises like the disastrous demonetisation – rather than more complex reforms. The exceptions were the bankruptcy code and the botched Goods and Services Tax.
Come 2020, Modi is once again facing charges of holding the interests of India’s richest businessman, Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani, over the needs of farmers.
The difference is that the BJP has spent the last five years turning Parliament into a rubber stamp, and relying even more on ordinances and hurriedly passed laws as part of its governance approach. Never mind being scrutinised by a Parliamentary panel, the farm laws were passed without actually counting the votes in the upper house of Parliament.
It has also steadily centralised power and relied on one-size-fits-all approaches that do not allow for the sort of state-level political bargaining that may otherwise have found solutions for the anxieties of specific constituencies.
Finally, with 2020 bringing a global pandemic and a migrant crisis, the BJP saw an opportunity to push through tougher reforms without having to carry out the tedious consultation process such as the one the previous government did with its own 2013 land acquisition law.
The result is a Centre that has more power to do as it wishes, and yet one that is more likely to see pushback on the streets – since Parliament or Centre-state forums have little bargaining power.
The BJP has already shown willingness to make major changes to the laws. But if the farmers continue to demand a full repeal, will 2020 be a repeat of 2015 – or will Modi prevail this time?
The 50-year view
India once regularly had food shortages. Though hunger remains a significant issue around the country and average nutritional intake is far lower than other nations, it does not experience the shortages that used to be commonplace.
Punjab and Haryana have a big role to play in this, thanks to the Green Revolution, which resulted in the Central government procuring huge amounts of paddy and wheat at guaranteed prices from farmers in the two states to support a public distribution system of subsidised food that still covers more than two-thirds of the Indian population.
One way of looking at the outsized role played by farmers in these two states is to portray them as fatcats who have been spoilt by state handouts, as some, like Swaminathan Aiyar, have sought to:
“By growing water-guzzling crops like rice in a low-rainfall state, Punjab farmers lowered the water table dramatically. First, all drinking water wells ran dry. Then the shallow tubewells of smaller farmers ran dry. The richest farmers with the deepest wells benefited while hurting others and destroying aquifers.
Besides, they now burn their crop stubble in October-November for early wheat planting, injuring and killing thousands in Delhi and surrounding areas with smoke pollution…
Punjab farmers have huge political clout and extract massive subsidies invisible to the public. Economist Ashok Gulati reveals that Punjab farmers get annual power subsidies of Rs 8,275 crore and fertiliser subsidies of Rs 5,000 crore, averaging Rs 1.22 lakh per farm household. In addition, they get subsidised credit and PM Kisan grants. Their high farm income translates to high land prices of Rs 50-100 lakh/acre. Industries do not invest in Punjab because land is exorbitantly expensive.”
But there was a time when this was exactly what the Indian state wanted from them. Incentives and Minimum Support Prices encouraged farmers in the region to grow the water-intensive paddy because it would help the country escape the trap of food shortages.
For all the portrayals of the farmers in these states as wealthy compared to their brethren, this still comes up to between Rs 18,000 to Rs 23,000 earned per month depending on the source of the data, or between $200 and $300 – not exactly wine-and-cheese money. That’s not even counting the rising input costs, the annual vagaries of the sector, how the average is skewed by a few large farmers and the concerns small, marginal and landless farmers have about the new laws.
Still, the Indian state no longer feels the needs to underwrite the earnings of farmers in the region. As Harish Damodaran explains,
“The seeds of the granary state’s postcard rural affluence story from the 1960s were literally sown by high-yielding varieties of wheat and paddy…
The breeding efforts of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and Punjab Agricultural University scientists were accompanied by investments in rural link roads, electrification, tube-well and canal irrigation, organised farm credit — and, of course, APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) mandis…
In the process, a new post-Green Revolution agrarian middle class — not “rich” or “kulak” farmers, as armchair experts would believe — emerged in Punjab…
That rural middle class is now waging war on New Delhi — the same Establishment that once propelled its rise. Its fight isn’t about upward mobility — agriculture can no longer be a conduit for that — but defending past gains.”
In this view – putting aside the larger questions aired by P Sainath about the way the new laws give remarkable powers to the executive or concerns about centralised decision-making – the Punjab and Haryana gravy train was always going to end one day. Aiyar believes the state’s farmers should be go cold turkey.
Others like Siraj Husain and Jugal Kishore Mohapatra have argued that “in appreciation of the contribution of the farmers of original green revolution states, the centre should design and roll out a scheme of direct income support to farmers who diversify from paddy. It could be on a tapering basis for the next ten years.”
The Punjab- and Haryana-specific critiques of the laws don’t encompass the entirety of the concerns around the laws. Yet ignoring India’s food and farmer history is also folly. The question now is whether the government in Delhi, which prefers “one nation, one solution” approaches will find a way to balance its responses, or risk the protest growing even further.
Flotsam and Jetsam
The Centre has a new plan to overhaul its media and public outreach including a need to “track negative influencers”, and “to identify journalists who have lost their jobs recently who are “supportive of the government or are neutral”, so that their services could be utilised by various ministries”.
A European NGO’s investigation revealed a 15-year-old disinformation operation that relied on news agency ANI to amplify the efforts of the little-known Srivastava Group and promote Indian interests, with no known connection to the government.
Despite being in power in the state, the Congress only managed a second place showing in Rajasthan local body elections, a result that provides a boost to the winning BJP.
After BJP President JP Nadda’s vehicle was attacked in West Bengal, the Centre has sought to up the ante with the state – where elections are due next year – by summoning bureaucrats and transferring police personnel.
Can’t make this up
In case you missed it, NITI Aayog chief Amitabh Kant – who has a history of making incredible claims – said last week that India was “too much of a democracy”, when asked about tough reforms, and then quickly scrambled to explain himself.
An Economist chart offers some context:
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