In the ongoing stand-off with protesting farmers over the farm laws, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre has given the impression that it has significantly softened its stance.
On the surface, this would appear to be the case. The fact that Union Home Minister Amit Shah and his cabinet colleagues Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Food, Commerce and Industry minister Piyush Goyal have been carrying out detailed negotiations with farmers' representatives is a change to the government's complete denial of farmers concerns earlier.
A brief recap of what happened between June and December is required here.
What Happened Between June and December?
The government brought two of the laws in the form of ordinances in June, the protests in Punjab began then itself but the government took no cognisance of them.
The government passed the Bills without any deliberation in Parliament and didn’t even budge when Shiromani Akali Dal ended its over two decade long alliance.
When the government finally agreed to meet farmers representatives at Vigyan Bhawan a few months later, it made them talk to a bureaucrat, not the agriculture minister or even a Minister of State.
Then when kisan unions carried out rail blockade in Punjab, the government was quick to stop all train services, harming the supply of essential commodities in Punjtab. The shortage of coal even created a power crisis. The government didn't lift its blockade even when the farmers had vacated all the tracks.
When the farmers decided to march to Delhi three weeks ago, they had to face water cannons, batons, barricades and trenches as they tried to enter and make their way through Haryana. It is clear that the BJP government in Haryana wouldn't have done this without the Centre's nod.
Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar and BJP supporters on social media, including its IT Cell head Amit Malviya, openly accused the movement of being backed by Khalistanis.
So from all this, to Amit Shah personally carrying out negotiations and Narendra Singh Tomar claiming that the government will do all it can to address farmers concerns, what changed?
There are two aspects to this:
- The growth in the farmers' movement
- The role of intermediaries between the government and farmers
A third aspect also needs to be examined: how much has the Centre really softened its stand?
Growth in the Movement
As The Quint had reported earlier, the government had underestimated farmers at every step. It thought that the stoppage of rail services would teach farmers a lesson, instead it incensed them further and made some of them push for the march to Delhi.
It thought that the farmers won't be able to cross Haryana, but they did.
The government thought that the agitation is restricted to Punjab, but now farmers from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh are also threatening to block entry points into Delhi. Farmers from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and other states have all come out in support of the movement and the numbers are constantly increasing.
The government thought that there would be no political cost to the new farm laws except in Punjab, but now its government in Haryana is in danger.
The farmers' agitation proved to be much stronger than the government had anticipated. International support - especially with a head of government like Canada PM Justin Trudeau - also speaking out in support, it became more difficult for the government to use force against the farmers.
Role of Intermediaries
A key role has also been played by intermediaries, who have conveyed the farmers' sentiment to the government. There are at least four intermediaries whose role is important.
RSS-Backed Bharatiya Kisan Sangh
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's farmers' wing - the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh - has constantly been appealing to the government to meet the farmers half way. The BKS has called for amendments to the three legislations, though it hasn't called for a complete repeal nor did it back the farmers' unions Bharat Bandh.
The BKS' feedback has been three-fold:
First, informing the government of the disaffection among farmers, not just due to the new farm laws but other factors as well.
Second, it has stressed the need for the government to communicate with farmers more effectively and remove any misunderstanding.
Third, it has also warned the Centre of the possible reactions that could take place if the farmers' concerns aren't addressed.
It has also pushed for a written assurance on the Minimum Support Prices.
Punjab BJP Leaders Like Surjit Jayani
BJP's Punjab leaders like Surjit Kumar Jayani have also been important intermediaries between the government and the farmers' unions. Jayani is particularly important as he is a prominent BJP face from the Malwa region, which is also the area of influence for most of the farm unions.
He hails from Fazilka in the South Western end of Punjab. Most of the other BJP leaders are either from Doaba - such as Union Minister Som Parkash or former MP Vijay Sampla, or from Majha like current state unit chief Ashwani Sharma or his immediate predecessor Shwait Malik.
Jayani therefore has a slightly better understanding of the farmers' unions than the other leaders.
Like Jayani and Punjab BJP, BJP’s Haryana unit has also communicated to the central leadership that the farmers’ anger shouldn’t be underestimated.
Dushyant Chautala and JJP
There are two other intermediaries, from outside the BJP and RSS hierarchy who have also contributed to this.
One is Dushyant Chautala and the Jannayak Janata Party. Like the BKS, JJP has also pushed for a written assurance on MSP.
Apparently, Chautala has also advised against use of any harsh tactics against the protesters.
Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh and Former CM Parkash Singh Badal
Then there's Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who met Union Home Minister Amit Shah on 3 December. He is known to have communicated that the continuing impasse could have "security implications", given that Punjab is a "sensitive border state".
Former CM Parkash Singh Badal spoke to PM Modi and urged him to solve the impasse and address farmers’ concerns.
So the feedback from all these intermediaries may have caused the Centre to temper its approach.
How Much Has Centre Climbed Down Actually?
Not all are convinced with the argument that the Centre has genuinely softened its stance. Some see it as posturing.
According to Amaan Bali, who has been tracking the protests since they began in June, "The government's projection that it was the bigger person is a scam. Not sure how many of you remember the meeting in Delhi when the government secretary met union leaders when unions walked out. Government hasn't had any change of heart, it’s hard work of unions”.
According to Bali, the government is still in denial about the enormity of the protests and continues to attribute it to a "few unions from Punjab".
"In its press conference, the government said that everything was fine but ‘few’ unions from ‘Punjab’ raised objections. This is misleading".
Bali also feels that the insinuations against the protests haven't ended, even from official channels.
"Both (Piyush) Goyal and (Narendra Singh) Tomar told the press 'it’s your job to find out who is behind protests'. Do they mean to say that the government still considers there are no legitimate protests? This is shameful."
It does seem that the projection of ‘softening’ its stance is part of the government’s perception battle with the protesting farmers.
Even as the negotiations are likely to go on, the BJP is reportedly preparing to organise press conferences and 'chaupals' in all the districts of the country on the new farm bills. Apparently, 700 press conferences and 700 'chaupals' to be organised in the coming days.
Therefore it is highly unlikely that the government would agree to the farmers' demand of repealing the laws.
The ‘softening’ of the government could well be posturing to send the message that it tried to negotiate and that it was the farmers who were rigid.