Farmers dig in their heels

24 February,2024 11:26 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Muhammad Raafi

Led primarily by Punjab-based unions, the protest has quickly ignited a complex web of political and economic concerns, casting a long shadow over the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha Elections


Key Highlights

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India's farmers are once again flexing their collective muscle, this time with a renewed demand for a legal guarantee on Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops, loan waivers, and broader reforms in the agricultural sector. Led primarily by Punjab-based unions, the protest has quickly ignited a complex web of political and economic concerns, casting a long shadow over the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha Elections.

The current protest, spearheaded by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Apolitical) and the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha, differs from the 2020-21 movement in its leadership and approach. Led by Jagjeet Singh Dallewal and Sarwan Singh Pandher, these unions advocate for a more structured approach, focusing on specific demands like MSP guarantees and loan waivers. They also lack the ideological unity of the previous movement, with other influential unions like the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) and Samyukt Kisan Morcha holding back, though their symbolic support could significantly escalate the situation.

A government caught between a rock and a hard place

The Modi government, still reeling from the blowback of the repealed farm laws in 2021, finds itself in a precarious position. While engaging in limited talks with the farmers, the government remains hesitant to commit to MSP guarantees, fearing the economic implications and potential market distortions. This cautious approach has been met with frustration from the protesters, who accuse the government of delaying tactics and selective action. Incidents of heavy security deployment, internet restrictions, and detentions have further fuelled tensions, raising concerns about stifling dissent and excessive force.

Beyond the headlines

Analysts offered nuanced perspectives on the protest's significance and potential impact. Pramod Kumar, from the Institute for Development and Communication, cautioned against oversimplification, highlighting the internal divisions among farmer unions and the lack of widespread support compared to the 2020-21 movement. He emphasised the need for long-term solutions beyond electoral considerations, focusing on agricultural reforms and sustainable practices.

"Resolving farmers' issues necessitates a strong political commitment. Instead of allowing it to become a battleground for electoral gains, the central government should have involved all political factions in seeking enduring solutions. Subsidising farming is essential to enhance its competitiveness on a global scale, a practice even adopted by developed nations to support their commercial agricultural endeavours," he said.

Pallab Bhattacharya, a journalist, brings a political lens to the issue, linking the protest to the upcoming elections and the BJP's anxiety about its performance in Punjab and Haryana. He sees the government's negotiation attempts as damage control measures, aimed at minimising electoral fallout.

"The BJP is well aware of the outcome of the 2021 protests, where the Modi government ultimately repealed the contentious farm laws. This decision was driven by the party's concern over the potential escalation of protests in Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh."

With fresh Lok Sabha elections looming, the BJP is keen to avoid any resurgence of farmer agitation. In an attempt to mitigate potential harm, the Modi government has assigned three senior ministers to engage in negotiations with the farmers. However, despite two rounds of talks, a resolution has yet to be reached.

Bharat Bhushan, another journalist, takes a more critical stance, highlighting the government's nervousness and its pressure on social media platforms to suppress protest-related content. He sees the farmers as the only group daring to challenge the government and predicts potential consequences for the BJP's re-election if the protest persists.

The wider implications

The farmers' protest transcends the immediate demand for MSP guarantees. It has reignited discussions on broader agricultural reforms, including the need for increased productivity, diversification, and sustainable practices. The current state of affairs, characterised by outdated policies, low investment, and climate change threats, urgently demands a comprehensive approach to ensure food security and farmer welfare.

Politically, the protest could disrupt the BJP's carefully crafted Ram temple narrative and impact its electoral prospects in North India. Furthermore, it poses a challenge to the newly elected AAP government in Punjab, which finds itself caught between its farmer base and the demands of the central government.

The potential for escalation remains a concern. The prolonged protest, coupled with pre-emptive restrictions by authorities and the memories of the 2020-21 movement, could lead to increasing tensions and even violence. Finding a peaceful and constructive resolution requires genuine dialogue, addressing the core concerns of farmers while ensuring food security and agricultural sustainability.

Bhushan believes that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, led by Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, in Punjab faces a critical dilemma posed by the farmers' agitation. "Two protesting unions have demanded that Mann lodge a murder FIR against those responsible for the death of Shubhkaran Singh. If Mann complies, it would challenge the BJP-led government in Haryana; if he refuses, his credibility in rural Punjab could suffer. With pressure from the Centre to uphold law and order, the escalating farmer unrest might jeopardise Mann's administration, potentially leading to its dismissal. AAP has thus far attempted to navigate both sides of the issue, but this balancing act is becoming increasingly precarious. If other farmer organisations escalate their involvement beyond symbolic gestures, the BJP's electoral strategies, particularly in North India, could face significant disruption."

The road ahead

The ongoing farmers' protest in India presents a multifaceted challenge with far-reaching consequences. Understanding the diverse perspectives, demands, and actions of different stakeholders is crucial for navigating this issue effectively. While immediate solutions like MSP guarantees might offer temporary relief, the focus should shift towards long-term reforms that address the structural problems plaguing Indian agriculture. Only through genuine dialogue, political will, and a commitment to sustainable practices can India find a solution that benefits not just farmers but the nation as a whole.

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