Farmers' Protest: A Roadmap for the Opposition

The ongoing farmers’ movement in India is proving to be path-breaking in more ways than one. It has unambiguously challenged the political economy of the present Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh–Bharatiya Janata Party regime and has to a limited extent, broken the control of the RSS ecosystem on the political narrative of the country. It has also followed the path of earlier movements such as the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests, to present an antithesis to the ideological hegemony of the current ruling arrangement. Though this agitation has had its limitations like earlier protests, it has given hope to the strata of society opposed to the rechristening of Indian nationhood and political system. 

The ongoing farmers’ movement, against the three new farm laws, was already four months old when the budget session of Parliament began. Those looking forward to a debate on these three laws were disappointed when they were passed hurriedly in the monsoon session of Parliament in September 2020 and the central government refused to conduct a proper discussion on the grievances of farmers, which eventually led to such a powerful agitation. Farmers are of the view that along with the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020, the three laws, namely Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, would be detrimental to their interests. These laws would break the market protection and subsidy network which the farmers have been benefiting from since the days of the green revolution, and may even lead to land-grabbing by commercial capital (Chaba 2020). 

In the budget session of Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government did not let opposition parties raise the issues that agitated the farming community. It must be noted that, when the budget session began, for more than two months, farmers were camping on highways bordering the national capital Delhi. In the course of the movement, dozens of farmers had died due to adverse weather and other conditions at protest sites. Still, the government at the centre did not allow an exclusive debate on the questions raised by the farmers’ organisations, nor did it offer tributes to the departed farmers and express condolences to the aggrieved families at the floor of the houses. 
 
In this scenario, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, while intervening in the debate on the Budget for 2021–22 (being conducted on 11 February), almost ambushed the Lok Sabha. Before requesting his party members and other opposition members to observe two minutes of silence in memory of departed farmers, he reframed the old family planning slogan “Hum do hamare do” with a new meaning. On Dussehra day in 2020, effigies of industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani were burnt along with effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah all over Punjab, the initial epicentre of the current farmers’ movement. All “four persons” denoted by the slogan were already a target for farmers protesting against the three new farm laws.
It has to be noted that, by discussing “all four” in the same vein, this movement has indicated its clear understanding of the political economy of the current dispensation at the centre (Basu 2021). Many economists, analysts and activists might have discussed it in the past (Research Unit for Political Economy 2020), but only during this movement, this nexus has become the talk of the town. Now, when achievements of this movement will be assessed, its contribution in spreading a widespread understanding of the modus operandi of the far-right “Hum do hamare do” arrangement would be duly noted. 

It is of significance that the leadership of Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the body that is heading this movement of more than 400 farmers’ organisations from all over the country, showed a rare understanding of the constitutional scheme of the division of powers when they rejected the mediation offered by the Supreme Court and declined to cooperate with the three-member committee constituted by the court (Yadav 2021). Perhaps it is the first time in decades that a political movement declined to be guided by the “common wisdom” that the judiciary is “above all” and it may intervene as it pleases. In this process, the leadership of the movement also, in a subtle way, expressed the mass resentment over the recent inexplicable behaviour of the higher judiciary, especially in some sensitive and very significant cases of political nature. 

Farmers’ Protest and the Dominant Political Narrative

But the single most important contribution of the farmers' protest has been the breaking down of the control of the ruling dispensation over the political narratives of the current times. As the BJP–RSS combine took control over the narrative produced by almost all “mainstream” media in its grip and established unparalleled power in the field of social media, levers of creating and controlling the political/ideological narratives have been in its clutches. Almost for a decade, this has been a decisive factor in Indian politics (Sen 2021). As it has been experienced world over, whenever artificially created narratives become decisive, truth and rationality become the first casualty. Politics spurred by perceptions and myths become the order of the day and leads to the weakening of democratic norms and civility. As we see today that a large section of Indian populace still believe that the country is on the path of progress and the economy is doing well under the current BJP government, the power of narratives becomes even more revealing (Sircar 2020). Despite such control over the narrative of the ruling BJP–RSS ecosystem, continuation of farmers’ protest for such a long period and their unshaken resolve may seem surprising to many.

On 28 January 2021, reeling under the mainstream media-created hype that “unprecedented” violence marred the national capital and “national symbols” were defiled during the farmers’ tractor rally on the Republic Day, the farmers’ protest seemed to be crumbling. Security forces were all set to do a “Shaheen Bagh” at protest sites around Delhi, starting with their action at Ghazipur border (ET 2020). Along with it came the news of an alleged attack on farmers at Ghazipur border by a mob led by two BJP Members of Legislative Assembly from Uttar Pradesh (UP). Amid such a highly tense atmosphere, the BKU (Bharatiya Kisan Union) leader Rakesh Tikait gave a, now famous, emotional speech. 

A video of Tikait in tears was shared widely in a short span of time, especially in the main catchment areas of the present movement. It led to an immediate revival of protests with hundreds of farmers from Western UP and Haryana leaving for the protest sites at Ghazipur, Singhu and Tikri borders within hours. The very next day many “kisan panchayats” were organised all over Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. All these responses were remarkable in themselves, but speeches given by villagers and farmers revealed something more significant. They showed the extent and level of consciousness and understanding regarding new farm laws. This would not have been possible if farmers had not created their own communication ecosystem.

Though this ecosystem is not organised and is decentralised and sometimes looks anarchic, it has proved sufficient not only for spreading news and information from the movement’s perspective, but also to counter the narratives propagated by “official” sources as well as “mainstream” media (Ananth 2021). The impact of this communication ecosystem is obvious in many ways. Only due to this ecosystem, official propaganda about the benefits of farm laws did not cut any ice and efforts to stigmatise the movement with a “Khalistani” slur failed (Prakash 2020). Neither the government at the centre nor mainstream media has succeeded in propagating the line outside their areas of influence that the movement is being run by opposition parties and “anti-national” forces. Rather, the areas of influence of the movement have witnessed a fury against the BJP–RSS and “godi media” (media houses allegedly sitting in the lap of the government). The demeaning and contemptuous terms publicly used for RSS at the farmers’ protests sites and at kisan panchayats (at least after 28 January) have been unusual and unheard of for many decades. Though initial signs of such anger was also visible during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in 2019–20, the main difference we can underline is that most people criticising with harsh words this time, were earlier under the influence of the “godi” media’s narratives and were generally understood to be a part of the support base of the ruling BJP (Gudavarthy 2021).  

The emergence of these sections of society from the BJP–RSS folds, represents a partial break in the control of the BJP–RSS ecosystems over political and ideological narratives at the grassroot level. It has been well noted that as social media became a part of people’s lives, spreading fake information and creating powerful political/ideological narratives became the order of the day, at least in democratic societies (Grimes 2019). This phenomenon became so decisive that the concept of “post-truth” and “post-journalism” (Hussain 2021) came into being. In this era, people looking for truth, facts and rationality in politics have been feeling helpless as public opinions are being formed and electoral mandates being decided on the basis of unrealistic, illogical and sometimes hateful political campaigns (Crewe 2017). No matter what the final outcome of the present farmers’ movement, we are definitely in a position to comment that these protests and discourses underlying them have broken that helplessness to a large extent. 

Challenges Ahead

But there are also limitations to such occurrences. Largely, the present status of communication and narrative building by movements has not been able to go beyond the affected groups and capture the popular imagination. Therefore, the farmers’ protests failed to resonate with the masses affected by earlier (mis)adventurous actions of the government. Political parties that claim to be opposed to the communal-neoliberal ideas of the current ruling party, have failed to rise to the occasion. 

On the other hand, many recent agitations have presented an antithesis to ideological persuasions of the RSS–BJP regime. A political will that can articulate a broader political vision for restructuring of the Indian polity has been missing. Opposition parties have hardly shown any inclination for such an initiative. They are almost clueless about the communication strategy in the new media milieu. But as has been argued in other contexts, media is a means by which politics becomes available to thought. They provide people with the material with which they can make sense of unmediated experience (Hind 2021). 

As we saw during anti-CAA protests and are observing now in this age of internet and social media, despite all odds, if one has a message it can be communicated to people at large. Voluntary video streaming on social media by young activists or committed journalists, creating a web of hundreds of WhatsApp/Instagram/Signal/Telegram groups, Tweeting/retweeting information from authentic sources and using own/friendly websites effectively, has proved to be an effective antidote to the information technology (IT) cells (aligned to or leaning towards the ruling party) and the “godi media.” This has been instrumental in spreading and sustaining the respective movements for a reasonably long period of time. Still, as far as succeeding in getting their demands met is concerned, if all these movements have reached a deadlock, it is only because their appeal has been restricted to certain affected sections of society. In the calculations of the ruling party, these sections do not threaten their political majority at present. As the levers of political competition have increasingly been aligned with the interests of the ruling party, for now, these calculations seem well placed. Therefore, the government's deadlock with all movements challenging the hegemony of this arrangement may continue for the foreseeable future. 

Still, as the farmers’ movement has shown a rare inclination to evolve, it is presenting a kind of template for future struggles. Having deliberately aligned their movement with agricultural labourers, they are now trying to join forces with workers of organised as well as unorganised sectors. The leaders of this movement have opened new vistas for joint mass agitations. They have cautiously kept “identity” issues at bay and it has paid dividends to their movement. Unfortunately, not many political leaders in India have shown the aptitude of grasping this increasingly confounding reality. Rahul Gandhi may be an exception, who has not only publicly shared his understanding of the current political imbroglio, but also tried to think of out-of-the-box solutions (Gandhi 2021). But he fails to propose a convincing programme of action that can generate enthusiasm among agitating masses and unite more groups together. Therefore, his understanding remains relevant only for his discussions with academics, or occasional op-ed pieces in the media. 

As most opposition parties are now opposing the blatant and reckless moves of privatisation by the BJP-led government, one may ask about their own role in making ideological ground for such privatisation possible. The opposition should be ready to reassess their understanding of the political economy of India as well as their politics and proclaim a new resolve to reclaim and reassert the state's power to plan and guide the economy and control the markets. Without a plan of putting resources in and resurrecting public sector enterprises, bringing back sectors such as education, healthcare, public transport in government hands, and development of public sector-led green infrastructure, no credible alternative politico-economic programme could be presented against the “Hum do hamare do” political economy. Those alternatives have to include a pragmatic resolve to address the problem of rising inequality, confronting and controlling monopolies, and raising income tax rates as well as imposing wealth and inheritance taxes on wealthy sections of society. 

In Conclusion

In recent times, farmers, workers, students, and certain religious and regional minorities have had a clear vision/idea of India they want to see. Actually, credit goes to them for presenting an antithesis to the ideology of the present ruling arrangement. Though there might not be immediate solutions on the horizon, the recent peoples’ movements have definitely proposed certain templates of tactics and strategies, ways of communication as well as politics and ideas for future protests. Their importance should not be underestimated as these movements have been the only source of hope amid the continuing onslaught of communal authoritarianism on the Indian democracy. 

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