Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Punjab’s farmers the real Opposition to Modi, BJP

Update: 2024-02-21 18:42 GMT
Farmers look for cover after police fired tear gas at them during their 'Delhi Chalo' march, near the Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border, in Patiala district, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Farmers protesting at the Punjab-Haryana border resumed their march on Wednesday, days after the fourth round of talks with the government over their demands. (PTI Photo)

It is an embarrassing fact that there is no credible Opposition to the Narendra Modi government and the ruling BJP-NDA even after it has been in power for 10 years. There is no serious challenge from the political Opposition even after Mr Modi has been in office for a decade. The farmers from Punjab, who had protested in 2020-21 and forced the government to withdraw three controversial laws after a year-long agitation, are once again challenging the government in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The farmers stand on their own, and no party is able to take up their cause. They have refused to be co-opted by the Opposition parties. Yet, they are no dummy Opposition.

The BJP-NDA government is in an embarrassing situation at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already declared victory even before the election dates are announced, and he is backed to the hilt by his Bharatiya Janata Party. But the farmers from Punjab have shown that it possible to put the undisputed leader of the country in the dock. There is the possibility of cynics saying that the farmers are putting up a weak opposition to the Modi government because when it comes to voting, they are not willing to vote against Mr Modi and the BJP. This could be clearly seen in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections of 2022, when the discontented farmers of western Uttar Pradesh meekly voted for the BJP. The government, in a tactical retreat, had withdrawn the three farm bills in November 2021, in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. In Punjab, the vote went for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), but the BJP was not a player to reckon with in the state.

How will the “Delhi Chalo” agitation of the farmers play out this time? Will the Modi government strike a compromise with the agitating farmers to ensure victory in the elections? The farmers’ protest is now confined to Punjab. The Haryana and western UP farmers said they are watching the situation, and they would take a decision on joining the protests. That will make the situation embarrassing for the Prime Minister and the BJP. The much-vaunted Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, which guarantees Rs 6,000 per year, the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, the two major schemes for the farming sector, have failed to protect the government from the farmers’ protests. It only shows that the cosmetic welfare measures have not helped the farmers much.

The other question that crops up is whether the demands of the Punjab farmers, who are considered to be the agricultural elite of the country because of their record foodgrain output, are born out of a pressing grievance or is it a political show of farmers’ power. Farmers from other parts of the country are comparatively poor, and they have enough reasons to demand things from the government, but they remain quiet, and they even vote for Mr Modi and the BJP. The government’s claim that it has done more than enough for farmers through various welfare measures, apart from the Minimum Support Price (MSP) it offers, is as questionable as everything else that it claims to have done. It is not that the Punjab farmers are not beneficiaries of the Modi government’s welfare measures. And it is not the case that they are so greedy that they want more of the goodies that the government is offering.

There is some logic to their demands, though it is not necessary to concede that government should accept all of them because there are limitations even for a party with a huge majority that the BJP has in the outgoing Lok Sabha. The negotiations between the farmers’ leader and the government’s ministerial team is on a collision course, with the farmers refusing the government’s offer of ensuring MSP for five crops, including the three dals, tuwar or toor, urad, moong, maize and cotton. The farmers’ representative bodies, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) and the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha (KSM), are not willing to compromise on their demand for a legally guaranteed MSP for 23 crops.

Both the experts and the government have argued that MSP cannot be guaranteed for all the 23 crops because it would mean the government would have to allocate Rs 11 lakh crores for MSP alone. The SKM has argued that legally guaranteed MSP does not mean that the government will have to procure them, but that this ensure that private sector players who buy the foodgrains in the market cannot buy it at a cheaper price than the prescribed MSP. It is a reasonable claim, but the private sector buyers of foodgrains do not find it attractive to pay the MSP.

How will the Narendra Modi government wriggle its way out this time? In 2021, all that needed to be done was to withdraw the three farm bills. This time around there is no buffer. The government will have to accept the farmers’ demands or persuade them to back off. The farmers are not willing to step back. The farmers can spoil the party for the Prime Minister and the BJP because they have already proclaimed their victory even before the elections date is announced.

The farmers have managed to keep all political parties out of the protests. The BJP cannot claim that the Opposition is playing with the lives and livelihoods of the farmers for political gain. There is no political factor in the collision between the farmers and the government. Will the farmers vote against the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections if there is no resolution of the issues that have been raised. The government is indeed in a tight corner. They cannot agree to the farmers’ demands, nor can they turn their back on them.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is acutely aware of the threat the protests pose to his image. Will he manage to come up with a magic formula that would satisfy the farmers and without the government giving away too much? This is a classical political tussle between two clearly-defined groups: the ruling party on one side and the farmers on another. If the farmers consolidate as a bloc that is arrayed against the government, it should indirectly help the Opposition parties. When there has been a general lament that that there is no real opposition to the government, the farmers have now walked into that vacant space.


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