Farmers’ Agitation: Are India’s Protestors the ‘New Opposition’?

It would be wise to recall that the Opposition doesn’t always sit in Parliament; sometimes they sit on the streets.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Farmers’ protests in Delhi. Image used for representational purposes.
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Visit a farmer protest site and you will see an unusual sight. Small hatchback cars doubling up as Airtel and Vodafone stalls with hand printed posters taped onto the windscreens, encouraging you to bring your Jio phone and SIM card, so that they may port the number for you. Curious, you might initiate a conversation with a protestor.

You will be offered a cup of tea, and stories of the boycott initiated by the farmer community. Some speak of having cut the power supply to various Jio towers, while others will tell you about the Reliance mall in Punjab that has been forced to put a padlock on its gates. Stories of locals seizing control of Adani-owned petrol pumps are rife, as is the determination of continuing both — the boycott as well as the protest — calling for a complete rollback on the recently introduced farm laws.

Having set out from different states of North India with their women and children to protest the corporatisation of agriculture, the farmers are vocal in reminding us of Mukesh Ambani’s ‘desire’ to include India’s farm sector under his brand.

As the news about Adani’s foray into the world of cold storage facilities and godowns came to light, the farmers’ anger grew.

What The Opposition Should Have Been Doing Instead Of Being Conspicuously ‘Absent’

While all this plays out on the global stage, gathering international criticism and reproach for the government, and, consequently, support for India’s farmers, India’s Opposition parties are conspicuous in their absence. Aside from a few half-hearted peevish statements made to media conglomerates upon prompting, the Congress party has been unable to position itself as a serious political force to be reckoned with, nor an ally for the people. In any democracy, the Opposition exists to play a role that is just as important as the governing party’s. The Opposition is expected to keep the ruling party on the straight and narrow by providing the checks and balances required to prevent them from becoming authoritarian.

They are also expected to function collaboratively with the media to criticise and block the ruling party of the day’s ‘corrupt’ attempts.

This role was well played by the BJP when they were in the Opposition; however, as the ruling party, they have, regrettably, fallen into the same roiling cesspool that they so vehemently opposed just a few years ago.

With the media having relinquished its role of being a cornerstone of democracy by functioning in an independent, questioning and critical manner, it appears that the political Opposition too, have left the building. And its big but empty shoes are being filled by an unexpected candidate — the Protestor.

In better times, the Opposition has often helped in the smooth functioning of the government by serving as a vehicle of expression of public opinion. Today, whether it’s the anti-CAA protestors of 2019, or the farmers of 2020, it is the awakened citizen who is not afraid to hit the streets for their rights.

How Citizens Have Taken On The Onus Of Preserving Democracy

Rejecting mainstream media as a medium to tell their story, the farmers have chosen the powerful tool of social media to make sure that what we see and hear is raw, honest, and straight from the horse’s mouth, without having gone through cuts on the edit table that might serve the interests of invested parties. In recent times we have witnessed the brave women (and men) of Shaheen Bagh fearlessly questioning the government’s communal intent in passing the CAA, and this year, we’re looking on as Indian farmers boldly demand audits that are suspected to expose a nexus of ‘crony capitalism’ implicating the powers that be.

Ideally, this should already have been done by the Opposition parties. When it comes to calling the government out on unethical laws that threaten the very fabric of our nation, it has fallen upon the common citizen — who is willing to take up the cudgels — to preserve our democracy. And I’m happy to report, we seem to have many.

How Govts Fall

As we have seen time and again, when a government falls, it is rarely due to the astuteness of political adversaries; rather, it is almost always the collective will of the people that leads to large-scale changes. As we saw nearly 30 years ago, the public outrage over the Mandal Commission report and the efforts of the VP Singh government to implement them caused mass scale violent protests all over the country, including multiple shocking attempts at self-immolation.

Unable to defend their intent in the face of public and political dissent, the government’s hand was forced, and a sitting prime minister was forced to resign.

The lesson learnt then was that when you sacrifice ideology for strategy, you lose the moral authority with which to lead.

What The Ruling Govt Needs To Recognise Before It’s Too Late

In recent times, powerful images of protesting farmers braving the cold to resist authority serve as a warning sign that India wants her democracy back. One where laws are not passed arbitrarily; rather, are done so though an honest, collaborative process, taking into account the welfare of stakeholders. The intervention of the Supreme Court in forming a committee has not been seen as an honest attempt at the analysis of the laws; rather as a biased exercise and an attempt to pull wool over one’s eyes. The farmers have rejected this committee, alleging all the members to be ‘pro-government’, further refusing to disband their protest or moderate their demands.

India’s protestors have, so far, shown no fear or hesitation in taking on the rich and the powerful, demanding that proper checks and balances be applied to the government.

The ruling government would do well to recognise this for what it is — the New Opposition’ — and treat them as such. It would be prudent to engage with humility, consider the public’s welfare and address their concerns — after all, they are the very stakeholders who were promised honest chowkidari. As we step into 2021, it would be wise to remember that the Opposition doesn’t always sit in Parliament — sometimes they sit on the streets.

(The author is a socio-political writer & editor. She has written extensively on communalism, hate politics, gender & human rights. She also runs a social justice initiative & podcast, which are an effort to counter violence, hate & polarisation in India. She tweets @insiyahv. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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