It may well be that the BJP-led government at the Centre is following a blow hot and cold strategy on the ongoing farmers’ protests on the capital’s outskirts. While Union Minister of State for Agriculture Kailash Choudhary reiterates that the government is keeping its door open for a sixth round of talks with farmers, his boss, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar makes a sweeping denunciation — the three farm bills are being opposed by the same cast of characters, he says, that protested against the abrogation of Article 370, the amended citizenship law and the construction in Ayodhya of the Ram temple. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad talks about the primacy of dialogue and then invokes the “tukde tukde gang” and his colleague, Piyush Goyal, who sat at the table in the government-farmer negotiations, alleges the protests are being “infiltrated by Leftists and Maoist elements”. It may be that the labelling is part of the same game-plan as the professed openness to talk. But the government must know that as it is seen to dip into its well-worn playbook for dealing with dissent, it is shrinking its own room for manoeuvre vis-a-vis a protester who is different from those it has faced before.
The farmer, the annadata, is an intimate and resonant figure who will not be easily Othered. And so far, the protest led by the Punjab farmer, is making itself heard in a way that is restrained and carefully calibrated. While the demand may be all-or-nothing — protesting farmers want a repeal of the laws and say they will settle for nothing less — the manner in which it is being made is sober. The protesters have kept the peace, and consciously resisted extraneous or extremist agendas. The joint resolution passed by 32 farmer unions on Saturday, reiterating that their only issue is the repeal of farm laws and nothing else, distancing themselves from the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), whose members waved posters demanding the release of activists in the Bhima Koregaon case on Human Rights Day on December 10, is an illustration of this. For the BJP-led government to attempt to taint and tar this protest, for it to see it through its adversarial and fetishistic you-are-with-us-or-with-anti-nationals/Leftists lens, is ill-judged.
What is at stake here is not just the BJP government’s ability to push through a policy. How the government handles this agitation will have consequences for reform and change in agriculture and in other sectors as well. A government that has shown formidable skills and machineries of communication must find the message and the medium to engage the anxieties and concerns of farmers. More name-calling is not an option, nor is blaming it on “too much democracy”. It is time the BJP listened to its own Prime Minister, who only days ago, reminded the nation that democracy is, most of all, about “kuch kehna, kuch sunnana”, talking and listening. That’s the only way to expand the table and give both sides the space needed for an agreement.
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