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Repression is rarely the answer

With each passing day, the government seems not only to be losing ground in the battle over the farm laws but bizarrely, it also seems to be turning its firepower on itself.

The laws, themselves, are not necessarily the evil instruments of repression that the farmers have portrayed them as.


Other governments have talked about similar reforms and even this version of the legislation has the support of many economists, not all of whom are fans of this government.


   But the battle is now less about economics than it is about politics. The government has retreated so far on the laws themselves that they hardly seem to matter. After the Supreme Court asked for the legislation to be kept in abeyance, the government made its own offer: it would put off implementing the laws for 18 months during which it would negotiate with the farmers to dilute the provisions of the legislation.


   Given this remarkable retreat on the market-led principles that the laws were supposed to embody, the issue is no longer the laws and their provisions. It is the farmers who have taken the maximalist position --- they will not be satisfied till the laws are repealed not just put into cold storage --- and the government which has been engaged in a desperate effort to save face. For it to repeal the legislation (rather than just quietly hold it back) would be seen as a humiliation for a government that has such an overwhelming majority in parliament. It would send out the signal that Mr Modi can be forced to back down.


   It is unusual for this government with its mastery of strategy and its usually surefooted instincts to find itself in this situation. The problem, as many have pointed out, is that this version of the BJP simply does not understand Punjab. Mr Modi has never made much electoral headway here and when his long-term ally, the Akali Dal, broke with the NDA over the issue, the BJP ignored this political fire alarm.


   Instead it fell back on two strategies that have usually worked for it in the past. It tried to weaken the movement by dividing its leaders and hoped that ultimately the protesters would be fatigued enough to surrender. A second strategy was to brand the protests as anti-national and to suggest (either through its own members or its social media army) that the agitation had more to do with Khalistan that it did with farm laws.


   The second strategy was particularly dangerous. At a time when Pakistan hopes to revive the Khalistan project and when the Chief Minister of Punjab has warned that separatist activities are beginning to grow, the last thing the Centre should do is to pour kerosene on the embers of the Khalistan movement.


   In any case, neither strategy has worked. There was a moment of national anger on 26 January when a section of the protesters broke barricades, assaulted policemen and raised a Sikh flag on the Red Fort. The government hoped that this would be end of the protests. And certainly, some groups walked out and farmers’ leaders scurried to dissociate themselves from the violent protesters.


"When you try to lock up middle class journalists and young students, you expand the circle of the protests by uniting environmental activists along with students and their parents."

   But two days later, when Rakesh Tikait resurrected the movement by shifting its focus to UP and highlighting the grievances of that state’s farmers, it was clear that the government's hopes had been dashed. It was not possible to smear Tikait and his supporters as Khalistanis and separatists.


   Since then, the government’s strategy has been illogical and counterproductive. It now makes no sense to persist with the anti national/ Khalistani/sedition narrative.


   But that’s what the government has done.


   The only way these protests could have garnered national, or even international, support was if the regime shot itself in the foot. In fact, it has repeatedly shot itself all over its body.


   It over-reacted to tweets from a few foreign celebrities and responded to one by portraying Greta Thunberg as an evil child-villain bent on the destruction of India. Its supporters filed cases against Shashi Tharoor and various journalists all over the country. And most recently, it tried to claim that a ‘toolkit’, a blueprint for agitation tweeted by Thunberg, was a call to violent insurrection. One young activist, Disha Ravi, with some connection to Thunberg is in jail. The Delhi police are looking to arrest others.


   All of this is a hysterical over-reaction: who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? It also takes the battle out of the villages and the highways and into the heart of urban India. When you try to lock up middle class journalists and young students, you expand the circle of the protests by uniting environmental activists along with students and their parents.


   More significantly for Mr Modi who seems prepared to ride out any domestic dissent, the over-reaction and the repression play badly abroad.


   Once the Americans gave him back his visa, the Prime Minister has spent years cultivating them. Why would he want to lose that goodwill now? India’s claim to have a role on the world stage has long been based on our credentials as a liberal democracy. Why throw that away because you can’t figure out how to handle your farmers?


   Just as the two original BJP strategies—divide the protesters and set the online mob on them --- have failed, this third strategy, of using the police to stifle dissent, is also doomed to failure.


   Anger, abuse and repression will not help this government. Magnanimity might.


   If Mr Modi were to announce that he will repeal the laws and constitute a collegium of farmers, opposition figures and ruling party legislators with experience of agriculture to draft new laws, he would leave the protesters with nothing to complain about. Given that he has already had to put the laws in cold storage it would make no material difference to agriculture either.


   When things go wrong, don’t blame the rest of the world for your problems.


   Instead try and resolve the original issue. Repression is rarely the answer.


   Try statesmanship instead.




  • Hari Sidhu 18 Feb 2021

    But Mr Modi is still making daily announcements that small and marginal farmers have already started reaping the benefits of the laws !!!
    He also keeps telling that only few misguided or those who have not understood the benefits of laws are only protesting !!!
    What can one understand or make out ???

Posted On: 18 Feb 2021 10:57 AM
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