With the government trying to make concessions, the farmers refusing to budge and awkward voices grumbling about democracy obstructing reforms, is the political narrative set to change? Is the BJP blinking, or will it hit back?
For the second December in a row, the Narendra Modi government finds itself in the midst of a protest. Last year, the anti-CAA mobilisation could be dubbed as an agitation by Muslims. The failure of non-Muslims to see it as an important issue provided the government an opportunity to give it a suitable label. This December, the farmers are up against the government. It would be a crucial test for non-farmers — first, whether non-farmers appreciate the concerns of farmers, and secondly, whether the farmers’ right to protest is recognised by non-farmers.
Within days of the farmers’ protests, the government began negotiations. This is something the present government has seldom done. Therefore, in itself, the negotiations have achieved something very valuable: They have brought back the relevance of the politics of accommodation. The controversial farm legislation is showcased as “bold reform” — a trait for which the prime minister is famous since his time as chief minister of Gujarat. What he has never been known for is the ability to accept that there can be differences over reforms and these need to be reconciled.
After six adamant years of expelling protest and negotiation from politics, the government had to climb down and begin negotiations. Therefore, irrespective of the outcome of the protests and irrespective of which side of the new farm policy one is on, this should be a moment of quiet realisation that policies should not be rammed through by state power alone.
The present regime looks upon any difference or protest through a three-dimensional prism: First, the prism of righteous monopoly over wisdom — nobody else knows anything better. Second, the prism of ill-will. Having arrogated to yourself monopoly over wisdom, it is a small step to saturate yourself with malice. This proneness to ill-will was on display the moment it brought the “K” word into the discussions of farm protests. The conversion of “kisan” into “Khalistan” can only be understood if one takes into account an obsession with majoritarian nationalism. The third dimension of the prism is that of brutality coupled with fear of the “people”. This was on full display when the government decided to keep Delhi out of bounds for the protestors and did not hesitate to use water cannons. As farmers harden their stance, one could expect naked repression.
The spirit of last year’s protesters and the resilience of this year’s protesters notwithstanding, they have both chosen to remain politically in a nowhere land. While the government operates astutely within the framework of party politics, it makes no sense for the agitation to remain non-party — and for other parties also to keep a respectable distance while supporting the agitation.
True, the Akalis pulled out of the NDA, Badal senior gave up his Padma award, and most non-BJP parties are making the correct noises. But the protests have been a non-party agitation so far. There is not much to write home about our parties — much less about the “opposition” parties — while the stamina, determination and political acumen shown by participating organisations is surely something to watch. Yet the continuously renewing romance with non-party politics is unlikely to take the protests anywhere. This division between the energy of protesters and rhythm of routine party politics can only dissipate both. This could help the government divide the protesters; the protests would fail to touch upon larger questions of policy and politics.
The involvement of parties is necessary if farmers (and even non-farmers) across states are to be mobilised. In the absence of the leadership and involvement of parties, the current protests will become political folklore but fail to produce the new churning that we urgently require. So far, there does not seem to be a larger mobilisation happening in many states; nor any possibility of forging broader alliances between farmers and farm labourers or agriculturists and non-agrarian poor. Both these — relocating the protests beyond Delhi’s vicissitudes and beyond farmers — will have the potential to produce political change.
The change that is needed is not only about farm policies, but about politics itself. In the past six years, besides moving resolutely in the direction of an exclusionary majoritarian nationalism, the government has also pushed the polity perilously toward the path of electoral authoritarianism. Indeed, the BJP government has brought us here, but the broader tendency of accepting electoral authoritarianism is far more dangerous. While the BJP is guilty of practising and legitimising it, many other parties cannot be absolved from the temptation of using the same path. When the TRS government in Telangana refused to talk to workers on strike, it was doing exactly what the central government is doing in Delhi. The record of many state governments is tainted with intolerance toward protests and political opposition.
Finally, the ongoing farmers’ agitation will be closely observed for yet another reason. The chant that “the leader can do no wrong” reverberates through all governance. The government and the prime minister recently “commemorated” the anniversary of demonetisation as something daring, essential and beneficial. This staunchness is glorified as decisiveness. By agreeing to negotiate with the farmers, the BJP government has taken the risk of denting that image.
Enough media yarn will be spun if and when a negotiated settlement takes place. Yet, the agitation may have finally forced the messiah to be reduced to a mere prime minister who has to consider the exigencies of politics. In itself, a prime minister agreeing to negotiate is not a shortcoming, but after having built an aura of non-negotiability about his wisdom, a settlement would mean the first step in converting the all-powerful and all-knowing supreme leader into a more routine political player.
If that happens, that would be a small beginning in the direction of a somewhat “normal” politics where debates happen, differences exist, compromises take place and leadership is not based on the image of unbending inflexibility. After all, no one is elected permanently, and no one has the monopoly over national interest; no one personifies nation; no one precludes the wisdom of others. If that normal politics begins, irrespective of whether one agrees with the outcome of negotiations, the farmers’ agitation will have signalled a distant spring amid India’s democratic winter — provided that there is no vengeful crackdown.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2020 under the title “Democracy’s distant spring”. The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor, Studies in Indian Politics.
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