Prime Minister Narendra Modi
I will never allow farmers’ interests to be compromised at any cost: Modi Image Credit: ANI

What does the Prime Minister of the world’s most populous democracy do when his farmers are agitating at his doorstep? If he is Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, he reaches out to them, with a mega media and ministerial outreach. Both to assuage concerns and promise restoration of specific wrongs. He invites them to negotiate on the basis of tark and tathya — logic and facts — not falsehoods and fabrications.

As the year draws to a close, a coalition of nearly 50 farmers’ unions, backed openly or covertly by opposition parties, have laid siege to India’s national capital region around Delhi. Some 200,000 protesters, who include not only farmers, but also truckers, ex-servicemen, even some sports and media persons, want the government to roll back the three Agri bills passed in September 2020.

In addition, they also want higher Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce, waiving of electricity charges, and repeal of penalties for stubble burning. The latter is one of the principal cause of haze and pollution in much of Northern India. Delhi’s latter’s air quality, especially in winters, is among the worst in the world.

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On Christmas Day, 25 December, which is also observed as the “Sushasan Divas” (Good Governance Day) in memory of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birth anniversary, Modi reached out to the farmers. Releasing the year’s last tranche of PM-KISAN, his government’s scheme to aid cultivators, Rs. 180 billion were directly transferred into the accounts of 90 million farmers. Each family covered got Rs. 2000/- Under this scheme, farmers are provided an annual support of Rs. 6000/-, disbursed in three equal instalments.

Modi reiterated his pro-reform stance, stressing the need to bring the farm sector in line with the rest of the economy. Asking the agitators not be misguided or misled, he said, “Our decisions and policies are ready to be tested on every criterion of reason and fact. If we are found wanting, we will try to rectify ourselves.” But he also blamed opposition parties and vested interests for their “political agenda” in trying to deceive and provoke the farmers.

Government ready for talks

“I bow to farmers,” Modi said, “A majority of them have supported the laws. I will never allow farmers’ interests to be compromised at any cost.” Contra the apprehension that farmers would lose their land to big corporations, Modi explained that his government had brought in the new laws to benefit Indian agriculturists. “We don’t claim we have all knowledge and that only we know what’s best. But there should at least be talks. I humbly request everyone, even to those opposed to our policies, that we are ready for talks.”

In addition to his 51-minute virtual address televised nationwide, he also conversed with farmers from six states via video conference. The attempt was to showcase successful new models of agribusiness adopted by progressive farmers.

Manoj Patedar, a farmer from Madhya Pradesh, shared his experience: “I have sold 85 quintal of soya to ITC Ltd. They assess the quality of produce in front of us and pay us accordingly on the same day.” From the extreme North East, Gagan Pering of Arunachal Pradesh, said he had opted for contract farming. “OK, so the buyer took your produce. Did he also take your land? Some people are saying the new laws will allow traders to take away your land too,” the PM countered.

Powerful farmer lobbies 

Modi did not attack the farmers directly. Though it is alleged that powerful lobbies of large farmers, who would rather continue to rely on government support prices than open competition, are backing the strike. Modi, instead, tried to portray the farmers as the innocent and misguided party.

He pointed out how extraneous issues, unrelated to farmers’ issues, were being injected into the stir. “Now they are demanding release from jail of those accused of violence ... They want highways toll-free … Why have they shifted from farmer’s issues to new demands?” he asked.

Modi repeated that under the new laws, farmers will continue to receive MSP, but will have the choice to go to private traders or enter into contracts with business and industry. He also attacked opposition-ruled states such as West Bengal and Kerala. Farmers aren’t agigating there even though no Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) or middleman controlled mandis (agri-markets) exist there. “So, why are no protests in Kerala? Why don’t they start a movement there?” he wondered.

Modi attacked Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Party government in West Bengal, where his own party, the BJP, hopes to score an upset in the assembly elections next year. Blaming the state government, he said West Bengal was the only state not to implement the PM-KISAN scheme: “I regret that while all farmers are getting it [cash support], only West Bengal government has deprived 70 lakh farmers of it. They are not benefiting because the West Bengal government due to political reasons are depriving them.”

With neither party willing to back down, who will blink first? We shall have to wait until the new year to find out.

Makarand R Paranjape
Image Credit: Gulf News 2020