Almost a month since their laying siege to the national capital, the farmer protests against the Centre’s three agricultural reform laws show no signs of ebbing. On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that his government was ready to engage with the protesters — including those “with political agenda” and “ideologically against us” — but this could only be based on “facts and logic”. In short, there was no question of repealing or even, as suggested by the Supreme Court, withholding the implementation of the three laws. The farm unions, on the other hand, have expressed a willingness to return to the negotiation table, provided the discussions relate to providing “legal guarantee” for minimum support prices (MSP) of crops beyond simply the government’s “written assurance”. As for the three laws, they would settle for nothing short of outright repeal.
This is a standoff nobody had bargained for. Certainly not the Modi government, while steamrolling the legislation first via the ordinance route and then through Parliament. The amendments it is proposing now — particularly to the most contested Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act — could well have been inserted during the course of informed debate in both Houses and after soliciting genuine stakeholder feedback. Not only did it fail to reach out to the naysayers then, the same dismissive approach was adopted when the protests began initially in Punjab and then at Delhi’s doorsteps. The demonstrators were variously called anti-national, ultra-Left and Khalistan sympathisers-led. Even in his outreach address, the Prime Minister blamed the parties that had “ruled Kerala and West Bengal” for “misguiding the farmers of Punjab”. Such talking down is least helpful in a situation that calls for dialogue and more dialogue.
The core problem today is a breakdown of trust — between the government and farmers from the granary of India. These are men and women who cannot be easily misled. They know that the regime of open-ended MSP procurement and paddy-wheat monoculture is both fiscally and environmentally unsustainable. And they aren’t wholly unjustified in assuming that the new farm laws may well be a disruptive game-changer; hence the demand for “legalising MSP”. Having staked so much political capital on the reforms, whose intrinsic merit cannot be doubted, the onus is entirely on the Modi government to engage with the farm unions. The usual tactics of divide, defame and divert clearly haven’t worked; if anything, they have been counterproductive and added to the already elevated distrust. This isn’t about farmers being misled by election-losers who want selfies, this is about much-needed reform that needs political management with tools smarter than a sledgehammer. The earlier the government realises this, the easier it will be for it to break the deadlock.