Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Friday, announced that his government had taken the decision to repeal the three farm laws which had attracted huge protests from farmers in Haryana and Punjab. He said that the farm laws will be repealed by the end of the month and urged the protesters to return home.
As expected, the decision did not go down well with the well-wishers of the government who were vocal in their support for the farm laws. There is much angst against the government and Prime Minister Modi himself on social media and elsewhere.
On his part, Narendra Modi said that they were unable to convince farmers that the laws were for their own benefit. Furthermore, he said that a committee will be formed to formulate laws for the benefit of farmers.
Nevertheless, it is a huge setback for the government. On the one hand, logic dictates that the decision was taken because the Khalistani separatist movement was gaining traction due to the propaganda around the farm laws. On the other hand, the government ends up looking weak, capitulating to street veto. Either way, there are certain lessons that the government could learn from the debacle.
A soft front for radical protests
The farmer protests were the second instance where mobs used street power to thwart the Indian Parliament. Earlier, the Shaheen Bagh protests had followed a similar trajectory, of blocking major roads, to force the will of the vocal minority against the laws passed by the parliament.
In both instances, radical elements used the cover of a vulnerable face to cloak the ugly realities underneath. In Shaheen Bagh, the protests were portrayed as soft-spoken ‘dadis’ against a ‘fascist’ government. In this case, it was the hardworking ‘farmer’ versus a tyrannical government.
While in the case of the former, the image of ‘dadis’ was used to hide the fact that children had died in these protests due to the negligence of parents and other ugly facets, in the case of the farmer protests, the image of farmers was used to cloak the fact that anarchy reigned supreme at the protest sites.
There were rapes, there were murders and there were assaults. But all of this was brushed under the carpet. While the government should have gone hammer and tongs against these crimes, they largely remained silent and allowed the mob to set the narrative. And in the end, they had to pay the price for it.
The Government ought to have made the discussion about the radical elements driving the protests but in the end, the narrative was about ‘farmers’. Even the government only spoke about farmers without laying sufficient emphasis on the dark elements using the cloak of farmers to further their agenda.
Communal undertones, Secular overtones
The protesters succeeded in painting the protests as ‘secular’ even though the communal nature of it was obvious from the very onset. The protesters succeeded in turning it into a matter of ‘Sikh pride’ and ‘Jat pride’ while the government was unable to stem the flow of it.
On the face of it, the protests were made to look like an outburst of genuine anger against the government but then there were always the communal undertones to it. On more than one occasion, Khalistani banners and slogans were heard at these protests.
Even Congress politicians conceded that Khalistanis had taken over the same. As early as January this year, Congress MP Ravneet Singh Bittu had said Khalistanis were attempting to hijack the protests. Nonetheless, the government could not dispel the narrative that it was a ‘secular’ protest.
Communication Strategy on farm laws
The Government’s communication overdrive on the farm laws began after the laws were enacted by the Parliament. It would have perhaps been more prudent to launch a massive awareness campaign before the bills were tabled before the Parliament.
That way, the political battle could have been fought before the laws were enacted. It would also have saved the Government the embarrassment of having to repeal the laws. The repeal also sets a dangerous precedent in that it would give rabble rousers the notion that street power reigns supreme and the Parliament can be forced into submission through unlawful conduct.
Free pass to violence to protesters against farm laws
The government had a golden opportunity to crush the protests in the aftermath of the Republic Day violence. It had widespread sympathy among citizens and numerous farmer organisations were also pulling out given the insult to the country on one of its most important days.
But the government failed to act and it only served to embolden protesters further. Consequently, roads were blocked with further impunity and politicians, from the BJP, were harangued and harassed at numerous places. On one instance, BJP leaders were held hostage at a Temple in Rohtak.
On another occasion, BJP MLA Kamal Gupta had to be rescued by the Police. The Government took its hand off the peddle when it comes to law and order, which made anarchy the norm in significant sections of the country.
Before long, the road blocks started to massively displease citizens in NCR who had to suffer due to them. While a swift imposition of justice early into the protests would likely have ended the problem right then and there, allowing it to fester and grow escalated matters into a situation where massive forces would have been required to quell the protests.
As the old saying goes, “A stitch in time saves nine.” At the same time, there were too many concessions that were given to the protesters. The delay in the implementation of the act was another concession that proved to be far too costly in the end. It was seen as a reward for unruly behaviour. When an opposition perceives weakness, they pounce. And pounce they did.
Soft approach to troublemakers such as Rakesh Tikait and Yogendra Yadav
Yogendra Yadav and Rakesh Tikait have been at the forefront of the mayhem that the protesters had unleashed on the streets. But for some reason, best known to the government, they were given broad leeway to continue on their merryway.
While it could be argued that a crackdown on Tikait was not politically feasible, the same cannot be said for Yogendra Yadav. Yadav is largely a political nonentity and his support was limited to the echo-chambers of Lutyens Delhi. While the government has been more than willing to take the fight to Lutyens Delhi, the lack of any perceivable action against Yadav cost them deerly.
Justice has to seen to be done but there was absolutely nothing that the government on that front. Tikait realised that there was no cost to the many ridiculous comments he had been making, which only encouraged him to push the line further. In October, Tikait had justified the lynching of BJP workers and yet, the comment was allowed to fade from public attention.
Yadav, too, realised that no punishment was coming, so he was at complete liberty to do as he pleased. Apart from that, on the many instances of unlawful conduct that were observed at the protest sites, the government allowed the protesters to scapegoat a select few and distance themselves from it when it was evidently not the case.
All of it came to bite them back in the end. Before long, the cancer had metastasized to such an extent that it would have required drastic measures to ensure that the farm laws could be enacted, measures that did not pass the muster of the cost-benefit analysis that the government must have performed.
Now, the Government is believed to have repealed the laws keeping in mind the threat to national security. There was serious concern that communal relations between Hindus and Sikhs had deteriorated and there was good reason to believe that Khalistani terrorism could witness a revival of sorts. Therefore, the Government appears to have concluded that it was too high a price to pay and decided to make tactical retreat.