The central government may, by hook or crook, ride out the current Punjab-based farmers’ agitation. But the underlying logic of the situation can sow the seeds of a long-term crisis. The existential stakes in this agitation for both the farmers and the government are high; but the possibility of a good faith material resolution of the problem is low. This has the makings of a perfect storm.
The propulsive power of the agitation comes from this. The farmers have increasingly seen their political identities being marginalised due to growing economic complexity. The power of unions has been weakened. So the three agricultural acts, which are going to affect Punjab the most, are providing a point of reference for the larger political significance of farmers.
There is a sense that if the government can get away with promulgating such significant legislation without adequate consultation with farmers, it will sound the death knell of farmers as a political force. The government’s typically haughty refusal to engage with the Punjab farmers has only compounded this feeling. There will have to be far-reaching changes to agriculture in the near future, in part prompted by environmental concerns. The sense that the farmers will be at the receiving end of these changes rather than shaping them propels the need for a show of strength. If they lose, they are marginalised forever.
There is also an interesting question of how much of this movement might actually be in control of the farmer leaders. Punjab has always been politically sensitive. But it has economically been in a cul de sac as well. According to the State Economic Survey, it has a youth unemployment rate of 21 per cent — young people stuck in a nether zone where they can neither be fully farmers nor be absorbed in respectable jobs. This young constituency has also not had a focal point around which to coalesce its grievances. It may be actually sustaining the farmers’ agitation and potentially driving it to a greater show of strength.
For the central government, the existential stakes are high. It draws a lot of its political capital from being able to show that “it could not care a damn.” The hubris in lack of consultation, refusal to build a consensus in the state, the trampling over federalism, is a feature, not a bug, in the way it does legislation. And so it is hard to imagine it climbing down. Even in terms of Punjab politics, the government might be willing to take a few risks. The Shiromani Akali Dal, which also used to be a face of Punjab farmers, is now thoroughly discredited. The AAP’s future is uncertain. Some of the blowback from the turmoil will also singe the Congress. So the possibility of a serious political vacuum in Punjab is real. This has the attendant risks that no political party may be able to contain or channel grievances. Given the BJP’s urban base, it probably calculates that even in Punjab it will, at the very least, not be worse off as a result of this agitation.
So the existential stakes for both sides are high. The basis of a material compromise is low. Taking back the three pieces of legislation is out of the question for this government. The strongest ground for challenging the laws, namely that they trample over states’ rights, is ironically not something the state governments are fully behind. In fact, on the federalism issue, there is double speak on all sides.
It appears that the state governments are also, at the margins, happy to have the Centre carry the can for agriculture. Let it become its problem. The demand for central legislation on MSP itself undercuts the federalism argument. The central government can give more of an assurance on MSP, but that is all it will be: An assurance. This could be a face-saver for both sides, but it depends on how much you trust the government. The government cannot give a credible assurance on unlimited procurement, which will be unadvisable in any case since there need to be more incentives for crop diversification in Punjab.
There is a basis for the fear of the farmers in Punjab. This is not the place to go into the merits of the three bills. But whenever there is a large-scale transition there is uncertainty about how it will work out and who will bear the risk. The farmers fear that support for public mandis and procurement is likely to decline. The fear that the bargaining power of a significant number of them might decline, without a strong state floor to support them, is real. The government could, in the spirit of conciliation, offer some commitment on procurement and support to public mandis.
There is the immediate challenge of managing the agitation that arises from a dismally familiar institutional situation. Over the last few years, it has become more and more difficult to protest in public spaces because of arguments that the public will be inconvenienced, the instinctive suspicion that the courts have of popular protest, and the ideological construction of any protest as signifying “malcontent without a cause.” Governments are also wary of letting crowds collect as a show of strength, and so the impulse is to make it difficult to express protest. This is a problem. Partly it puts all protestors in a Catch 22. Either you don’t protest, or if you protest you are by definition breaking the law. This situation will produce the kinds of horrible scenes we have seen on the Punjab/Haryana/Delhi border, with barricades and water cannons being used. We have to come up with more enabling guidelines for peaceful congregation of citizens. By not allowing peaceful protest we in the long run increase rather than decrease the risk of violence. And if violence breaks out, the political dynamic can shift.
Chances are that, for the moment, given its overwhelming power, the government will ride out the protests. But the simmering discontent will remain. Cooperative federalism is in tatters, and the weakness of political parties means protests now take an amorphous form. Given the far-reaching changes we need in agriculture in Punjab, it is important that the trust between the state and the farmer remains. A good faith dialogue that gives the farmers reasonable assurances and a face-saver is necessary. It is easy for the government to win. But how many times in Indian politics have we won short-term victories that create long-term political precariousness?
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 28, 2020 under the title ‘Winds from Punjab’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
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