Opinions about Tuesday’s (Jan. 26) events in Delhi, when police unleashed violence against protesting farmers who went on to break barricades and fly a Sikh flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort, are likely to break down on partisan lines.
Those who believe in the cause of the farmers are likely to brush aside concerns of propriety when it comes to protest, pointing instead to the violence perpetrated by the state in the run-up to and on Republic Day. Those who support the laws or the government have been calling for a crackdown, decrying what they have labelled violent hooliganism in the capital.
However you look at it, though, one thing is evident: prime minister Narendra Modi and his government’s handling of the issue has been a complete mess.
Start at the very beginning. The three farm laws, which seek to deregulate agricultural markets, create a basis for contract farming and take regulatory power away from state administrations, among other things, were announced as part of the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” package that sought to lift the Indian economy out of the Covid-19 induced quagmire.
That package contained little in the way of stimulus measures, earning the government much criticism for its unwillingness to spend any money. Instead, it included moves like this one, which would fundamentally alter Indian agriculture.
Right to Information requests have revealed that the government has no record of consulting stakeholders about the content of these proposals, before they were summarily turned into laws. This was done through executive ordinances in June 2020, without even waiting for Parliament to take up the matter.
Why the government decided to bring in ordinances that would upend Indian agriculture without consultations with either stakeholders, the states, or in parliament is unclear.
The argument has been made that the government was attempting to turn crisis into opportunity, presumably hoping that the pandemic’s economic devastation would reduce the chance of any public mobilisation against its moves. If so, its calculations were clearly wrong.
Modi may also just have been falling back on his instincts. His government has repeatedly relied on ordinances to skip a more consultative legislative process and in this case was also seeking to use technicalities and avoid working with the states, in what some called “bypass reform.”
Again, if the government hoped these shortcuts would somehow speed up implementation of the laws while forcing those who might have opposed it to simply accept the changes, that is evidently not how it played out.
Next, the ordinances were placed in parliament, even as farmers across Punjab and Haryana as well as a few other states had mobilised against them. The anger from Punjab alone was such that the Shiromani Akali Dal—one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s oldest allies—quit the ruling coalition, with its minister exiting Modi’s Cabinet, in protest against the laws.
That didn’t seem to send enough of a signal to the government that it may need to do more consultations instead of bulldozing the laws through parliament with its brute majority. The laws were quickly passed in the Lok Sabha (lower house), with minimal discussion, and taken to the Rajya Sabha (upper house).
In the upper house too, discussions were held for just a few hours, before the bills were moved for passage, giving short shrift to many opposition demands for them to be sent to a parliamentary panel for further scrutiny and consultation.
What followed was disturbing: despite the BJP not having a simple majority in the Rajya Sabha, and the opposition calling for every vote to be counted, the Speaker passed the laws using a “voice vote”—adjudicating that one side had shouted louder than the other. In other words, the laws were passed without actually counting to see if they had sufficient votes.
Few of those decrying the planting of a Sikh flag on the Red Fort as an “attack on democracy” on Tuesday seemed to have taken issue with the much more serious question of passing laws without counting votes in parliament just months earlier.
All of those chickens came home to roost over the next few months, as the protests in Punjab only got bigger, gathering more support from farmers across North India and elsewhere. The government’s response was to ignore or dismiss the protesters—until they began moving towards Delhi. Then the weapons came out: tear gas, water cannons, dug up highways, massive barricading and anything else that might prevent protesters from expressing dissent.
The government’s refusal to let the protesters enter Delhi in November gave the farm unions the idea of setting up shop at the capital’s borders. Which they turned into a massive mobilisation, bringing tens of thousands out and creating entire tractor towns to mark their opposition to the laws.
Over nine rounds of talks, the government then offered to undo many of the key aspects of the laws, attempt to move the matter to the supreme court and even suggested that it would suspend the laws for two years while working out a solution amenable to the farmers.
As Manoj CG explained in the Indian Express, many of the concerns that the government was willing to concede on were the same as those flagged by the Opposition in Parliament—yet dismissed then. Each of the government’s subsequent offers seemed like damage control that gave up more ground, while the farmers steadfastly demanded repeal, causing deep embarassment to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
All of this culminated in the protests and the violence of Tuesday.
The excesses of the protesters, including the raising of a flag at the Red Fort—which has been condemned by the farm unions—may yet affect their protest movement. It has certainly sharpened public opinion.
But the farm unions have vowed to continue their protest. The fact that things came to such a pass alone reflects a major failure for this government, both politically and from a law and order standpoint.
Though many want him to do so, Modi will struggle to declare that the entire protest is filled with violent elements and initate a mass crackdown, since his own government legitimised the movement by offering to suspend the laws for a whole two years.
Meanwhile, Amit Shah’s tenure as a home minister—which involves being responsible for law and order and also being answerable for the violence of the state—gets another blemish, a year after communal violence broke out in the capital when the US president was visiting.
There is no angle from which the government’s actions and its calculations look good. Having messed up from start to finish, what move will Modi take next?