For 41 days, the 41 farmers’ unions have been sitting on a protest at the Delhi borders demanding repeal of the three farm laws. Seven rounds of talks with the central government have failed to end the deadlock.
During the course of farm stir that began on November 26, with thousands of protesters gathering at highways leading to Delhi, momentum has shifted a few times.
Initially, the government appeared tough and the farmers showed willingness to accept a written guarantee on the Minimum Support Price (MSP). Later, when the government lowered its guard and offered to amend the farm laws, the farmers’ unions appeared to harden their position.
The talks between the government and the farmers’ unions have lacked trust due to which the outcome of every round of negotiation has been the same — failure. After Monday’s talks, the Union ministers and the farmers’ unions blamed each other for the expected result.
What does the government say?
The government has been insisting that the three farm laws implemented through Ordinance route in June 2019 and passed by Parliament in September, are aimed at reforming agriculture and marketing of agriculture produces. The government has countered the protesters saying that the laws are not “limited” to the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, but also for farmers of other states.
To back its stand, BJP leaders and Union ministers have cited noted farmer leader late Sharad Joshi, former Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s past comments and also the 2019 Lok Sabha election manifesto of the Congress.
The government and the BJP see the protest by farmers’ unions as an agitation by the critics of the Narendra Modi government hiding behind the farmers.
What do farmers want?
After the seventh round of talks, the farmers’ unions want nothing less than the repeal of the farm laws. Kirti Kisan Union leader Rajinder Singh Deepsinghwala put it in clear terms: “The government wants to discuss the laws with us clause-wise. But we have only one line for them – no appeal, no daleel, only repeal.”
“The government said they have walked ten steps forward and we too should move a little. But we rejected it categorically,” he said referring to the government’s position.
Rakesh Tikait, the leader of one of the factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, echoed the stand saying, “There will be no ghar vapasi [homecoming] until the laws are repealed.”
This explains why the four-hour-long talks on Monday had a lunch-break of almost two hours during which the Union ministers did not share lunch with the representatives of the farmers’ unions, unlike the previous round of talks.
Hardening of positions
There are now signs that the government may be hardening its stand once again after showing willingness to concede grounds to the protesting farmers. There is a sense in the government that the protesters may have taken its willingness to amend the laws – as offered in the eight-page letter in December – as its weakness.
Secondly, the understanding in the government is that the protest has sustained on account of behind-the-scene-support by opposition parties, particularly the Congress and the Left.
This comes from the fact that even though protesters have come from several states, the core of the thousands of protesting farmers is from Punjab, a state ruled by the Congress.
The Left Front, which rules Kerala, has extended its support to the farmers. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal too is helping farmers protesting at the Delhi borders.
This makes the BJP-led central government’s position unsuitable if it is seen to concede more than it can handle politically.
This could be why the government has again hardened its position. It is back to “clause-wise” discussion of the farm laws to explain the merits of the legislation to the protesters. After the farmers’ unions rejected a discussion on the merit of the laws, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar said, “Two hands are needed to clap. Both sides need to take steps forward to find a solution.”
Meanwhile, pressure is building on the government to find ways to end the stalemate, given that the highway protest by thousands of farmers would soon be an international attention again as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be visiting New Delhi to participate in the Republic Day parade as the chief guest.
In 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was the chief guest at the Republic Day functions when New Delhi was the theatre of another mass protest at Shaheen Bagh over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Shaheen Bagh protest was going on when US President Donald Trump visited New Delhi in February, when the national capital saw communal riots.