The cycle of agitations against the Modi government is unlikely to end anytime soon
PR Ramesh | 08 Jan, 2021
Just hours after the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) granted the much-awaited emergency use authorisation (EUA) to two ‘Made in India’ vaccines against Covid-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the “eagerness of the scientific community to fulfil the dream of an atmanirbhar Bharat”, reaffirming India’s position as a pre-eminent world player on this front.
Heralding positivity in the first week of January, Modi, speaking at the 75th jubilee of the National Physical Laboratory under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said: “The new year has brought with it another big achievement. India’s scientists have successfully developed not just one, but two made-in-India Covid vaccines. In India, the world’s largest Covid vaccine programme is also about to begin. For this, the country is very proud of the contributions of its scientists and technicians.” Projecting into the decade ahead, Modi said that while in the past India was dependent on foreign standards of quality and measurement, it would now set its own new heights in standards for the world to follow. “In India’s pace, India’s progress, India’s growth, India’s image, India’s influence, our capacity-building will be set by our standards. In our country, there should be quality in our services, whether it is the government sector or the private sector. Our quality standards will decide how much the strength of India, and its products, increase in the world.”
His words were not just about the admirable developments on the vaccines made at home and set to be exported soon. They were a telling metaphor of hope in the new year and the decade ahead for a nation locked down for several months under health, economic and other compounded distress. They were a blueprint for the progress and growth in store for millions countrywide.
That, however, was not how Congress President Sonia Gandhi perceived the developments. She instantly swung back to the favourite pastime of her ilk. Launching a tirade against the Modi Government, she alleged that it was the first time since Independence that such an “arrogant” Government had come to power. Berating the prime minister, she demanded that he “leave the arrogance of power and immediately withdraw the three black farm laws unconditionally to end [the famers’] agitation.” Her party leaders like Shashi Tharoor, meanwhile, were quick to decry the EUA for the Indian-made Covaxin as “premature” and likely “dangerous”. His comment was slammed by Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on the heels of a backlash against Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav’s earlier statement that he would not take “any BJP vaccine”. The EUAs were dissed as “political jumla” by Modi’s detractors.
Modi’s words were not just about the admirable developments on the vaccines. They were a blueprint for the progress in store for millions. That, however, was not how his detractors perceived the moment. With important state elections this year, they can be expected to have a busy calendar
Sonia Gandhi’s position on the farm laws, which she chose to focus on at such a momentous time when two Indian vaccines against Covid-19 were granted EUAs, appears to be a testament to the doublespeak her party adopted when in power. A political elite that claims its commitment to facts is unshakeable has found it appropriate to remain parsimonious with the truth when it comes to attacking Modi. On the farm laws, the party has conveniently resorted to duplicity in defending its own position, as stated in its election manifesto not long ago, endorsing reforms and opening up the primary sector, including doing away with the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) or government-run markets for agri-produce and the floor price (MSP) declared by the Centre for 23 crops, thus paving the way for price realisation by the market. The punditocracy and their media enablers have been trying to create a narrative of a historic and just, pan-India farmers’ agitation against a complete corporate takeover of the agricultural sector, advantaging ‘Modi’s own friends’. This, despite the fact that, for over a month now, it has been mainly the rich farmers of Punjab and Haryana, fearing their affluent lifestyles are under threat, who have been blocking the roads leading to Delhi. The storytelling has been centred not on facts but emotional hyperbole, involving plunging temperatures, pouring rain, women struggling to keep the farm fires going back home in the villages, and so on. Gyms, spas, launderettes, hair salons, shiatsu massage chairs, ‘Kisan Malls’, ‘Kisan ATMs’ (for essential groceries) sprang up all over the protest area overnight, competing with the best of services in metros. Setting up their own website and social media accounts to apparently sidestep Government propaganda, savvy youngsters at the protests have churned out tragic tales of how bleak the New Year’s Eve would be for the farmers. The truth, though, was that popular singers were belting out their numbers from multiple music systems as the ‘farmers’ partied into the wee hours of the New Year’s morning.
Although the Modi Government and its ministers have repeatedly urged the protestors to send the elderly, the women and children back home and engage with the Government with an open mind, they have continued to use the vulnerable among them as a protective ring for the agitation, even as they threatened to take out a tractor rally into the capital on Republic Day if their demands were not met by then.
Among the most glaring examples of duplicity on the farm laws is that of former Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) Kaushik Basu, who has been economical with the truth on his position regarding opening up the farm sector to market forces and diminishing government control on pricing and procurement of agri-produce. Basu was CEA between 2009 and 2012, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power. As CEA, he had authored three Economic Surveys—2009-2010, 2010-2011 and 2011-2012—in which he had talked about the need for agricultural reforms. But on December 11th, 2020, he proclaimed on Twitter: ‘I’ve now studied India’s new farm bills and realize they are flawed and will be detrimental to farmers. Our agriculture regulation needs change but the new laws will end up serving corporate interests more than farmers. Hats off to the moral strength of India’s farmers.’ This was promptly hailed as a kumbaya moment by the Congress and its ecosystem.
Arvind Panagariya, former vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, said that both Basu and his successor Raghuram Rajan had ‘recommended reforms similar to those just enacted’ and have ‘now come down heavily on them.’ In an article in a daily, he went on to cite instances from the Economic Surveys authored by Basu and Rajan and pointed out that they both not only favoured the entry of private investment in agriculture but also foreign multi-brand retailers in agricultural marketing. One of the surveys helmed by Basu had said: ‘Anyone who gets a better price and terms outside the APMC or at its farmgate should be allowed to do so.’ It also supported FDI in multi-brand retail: ‘Considering significant investment gaps in post-harvest infrastructure of agricultural produce, agriculture should be encouraged and the FDI in multi brand retail, once implemented, could be leveraged towards this end.’
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, not too long ago a vocal supporter of the farmers’ protests, even an agent provocateur, has been forced on the backfoot after protestors sharpened their aggression in the home state and attacked over 1,500 Reliance Jio telecom towers, directly inconveniencing students, medical professionals, business people and homebodies, and negatively affecting the state’s economy. As Reliance went to court against the attacks which continued despite Singh’s appeals to the miscreants, he has now threatened action against protestors destroying telecom towers. Singh is now in an unenviable position where he has realised the serious economic consequences for his state. But the fear of going against the powerful Jat Sikhs of four Punjab districts has curtailed his options in controlling the direction and momentum of the protests.
The subplot of the agitation—the attack on Reliance Jio mobile towers—is intriguing. The towers were targeted even though Reliance is not into contract farming or foodgrain procurement. The fact that you cannot tell the tower of one service provider from another has led to suspicions of telecom rivalries playing out in Punjab. All of this has naturally raised eyebrows as the plan to roll out an indigenous 5G network by the company is in the works, and the Government has been looking ahead to it for ridding itself of the dependence on China’s Huawei. This has also raised questions as to who is fuelling the targeting of Jio towers. Singh himself, in his meeting with the prime minister early on in the agitation, had expressed apprehensions that this could have national security implications.
This is not the first time that issues have been manufactured to target the Government. The anti-Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) protests—a law meant to give rights to oppressed communities, mainly Hindus, in neighbouring nations, and a longstanding commitment of the BJP—were propped up for months against the Government. Although this was initially fronted by the civil liberties platoons of liberals, Modi baiters, so-called intellectuals, the radical Left and others, it was soon exposed for what it truly was: a planned subversive movement taken over by hardliners from the Muslim community against the Modi Government, and meant to lay down firmly the terms on which they would engage with the mainstream polity thereon. It was aimed at marking a decisive socio-political turn in the nation’s existence.
Most of those who spearheaded or covertly co-authored the anti-CAA protests, from college students to ultra-Left activists to Muslim hardliners, such as Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid, are now behind bars with charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, including sedition, against them.
The punditocracy has been trying to create a narrative of a historic and just, pan-India farmers’ agitation. The fact is that it has been mainly the rich farmers of Punjab and Haryana, fearing their affluent lifestyles are under threat, who have been blocking the roads leading to Delhi
The farmers’ protests will not end too soon. Especially since the Government has been consistent in its view that, with the new laws, farmers will benefit immensely. They will be free now to sell their produce outside the APMC and such trade will not be taxed, giving farmers a higher margin. Farmers can sell their produce within or outside their state, allowing them to benefit from higher prices wherever such prices prevail.
Under the new laws, there will also be no licensing of traders to buy agri-produce outside the APMCs and disputes arising from such trade will have to be settled within 30 days by a sub-divisional magistrate. Besides, heavy penalties will apply to violations of rules and regulations.
The ongoing protests have been described by some analysts as “anti-CAA protests raised to the power of n”, indicating, in no small measure, that like the anti-CAA agitation end of last year, this may not be only about farmers and their core concerns. The Government will not buckle and repeal the laws, falling prey to the emotional entrapment set up by vested political and ideological interests.
But how did the self-styled ‘woke’ people, ‘secularists’ and radical leftists come to entrench themselves in the system so firmly that, six years short of eight decades as a free nation, India’s socio-polity can still be held to ransom on growth, stability and social harmony by manipulating issues of routine policy by a Government elected overwhelmingly—not once but twice—to consistently undermine Modi’s leadership? The answer to that lies in the late 1960s, three decades into India’s independence and the ascent of Indira Gandhi. In 1969, the ‘Goongi Gudiya’ of the ruling Congress took the significant step of backing independent candidate VV Giri for the post of India’s president, directly challenging the decision of the elders of her party to support Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy for the post. This rebellion was aimed at cementing her position as the most powerful leader in the Congress and undermining the authority of the ‘Syndicate’. Indira Gandhi, not yet 50, had been feeling threatened by these senior party leaders since the 1967 General Election. In a bid to dig in her heels, she chose to espouse a populist agenda and socialist policymaking that included a lot of welfarist rhetoric, stringent control on business and nationalisation of banks. This was meant to broaden popular support for the Congress while also clipping the wings of the older power elite within. Her Government began to lean heavily on the Soviet Union for both policymaking vision and for other assistance, a move frowned upon and criticised by the Syndicate leadership.
VV Giri won the presidential election. On November 12th, 1969, Indira Gandhi was expelled from the Congress for violating party discipline and formed her own Congress with overwhelming support from members of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). She was still 45 seats short of a majority. And herein lay the rub. She asked the Communists for support, which they were eager to give but based on a crucial quid pro quo. The leftists made a decisive long-term ideological investment and captured the ‘soft’ centres of power, the spheres of culture and, most critical of all, education. It was an ‘investment’ that marked a definitive step in dominating the minds of generations to come. A covert coup and a calculated, strategic entrenchment that was paying off but threatening to completely unravel of late.
With another round of important state elections slated for this year (including West Bengal and Tamil Nadu), the ‘woke’ crowd—cloistered in the comfort zones across campuses, newsrooms, court halls and Bollywood—can be expected to have a busy calendar. Resentment theories, Hindutva conspiracy plots, whining about how the Modi Government is systematically gagging opinion, trampling on freedom and free speech and undermining institutions, including the judiciary, can all be expected to be amplified manifold. As with the anti-CAA/National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests and now, the ongoing farmers’ agitation, none of this has diminished Modi’s and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral domination, from local civic body and panchayat polls to state Assembly elections.
But the persistent script of grievance is not surprising. There is little doubt that once the farmers’ protests are dialled down, a new issue will be engineered by the ‘wokes’ and those radicalised against the socio-cultural and historical moorings of this country. The Modi regime is seen as a threat to their hold over the estates they have controlled. And they were at it barely weeks after Modi took over in 2014, an indication of the high stakes in maintaining the status quo of the establishment.
The ‘award wapsi’ drama was the first attempt. It took shape in the run-up to the Bihar polls in 2015 when the BJP was facing the combined might of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, a numerically formidable alliance. Hindi poet Uday Prakash, who was protesting against the murder of scholar and rationalist MM Kalburgi in 2015, returned his award received from the Sahitya Akademi. Nayantara Sahgal and Ashok Vajpeyi—a Congress partisan made a cultural czar of sorts by Arjun Singh—followed. Those who returned awards included Krishna Sobti, Kashinath Singh, Keki Daruwalla. And the orchestrator of this move was Vajpeyi.
Sonia Gandhi’s position on the farm laws appears to be a testament to her party’s doublespeak. The Congress election manifesto had endorsed reforms and opening up the primary sector, including doing away with APMCS
But nothing gained or nothing conceded despite these choreographed moves to embarrass the Modi Government was troubling. Soon, they latched on to cow vigilantism and every criminal act was projected as its fallout. But the BJP did not give in and announced, instead, that every illegal abattoir in Uttar Pradesh would be banned. This was spelt out in its 2017 election manifesto for the state Assembly elections and the party went on to sweep the state because of public revulsion at the Akhilesh Yadav government.
There were various eruptions before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The suicide of a Dalit student of the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, was one such rallying point endorsed by the ‘woke’ brigades to undermine the Government. The Left leadership, activists and their media enablers conveniently chose to ignore Vemula’s last missive in which he expressed his acute disappointment with the Left student organisation, the Students Federation of India, to which he had belonged.
In 2018, a Supreme Court order on the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was used once more to pitch Dalits against Modi and his party’s efforts at a larger Hindu consolidation. The results showed that the attempt at undermining the Government’s credentials failed once more, with the BJP winning the most number of reserved seats in the country. None of this has come as a surprise to either Modi or his party leaders since they are aware that their ascension to power is the biggest challenge faced by the status quoists maintaining a vicelike grip on the power establishment for decades.
What is on display is the glorification of the arhatiya (broker/dealer), cutting across issues. Currently, they are being projected in the ongoing farmers’ protests as altruistic and not as middlemen who routinely squeeze small and marginal farmers with usurious interest rates for loans they grant, even in the 21st century, driving them to distress, penury and death. Jawaharlal Nehru may have famously said: “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.” He may have insisted on the first Soviet-style Five Year Plan of 1951-1956 focusing solely on the primary sector. But after decades of his party and family ruling at the Centre, it is the one sector in which the mafia of middlemen has become the most entrenched, the rich most protected and the poor and marginal most orphaned in terms of policy and insurance against risks.
The coming days will see assorted groups, with little in common but for a shared animosity towards Modi, magnifying real and imagined grievances and attempting to weave a narrative of India on the boil. The outrage artists may have a busy calendar but Modi, who continues to have a high approval rating, is in a high-stakes battle in a historic righting of wrongs and will not bend.