The political battle over reforms

The farm groups are attempting to weave a wider narrative to collaborate with the Opposition, trade unions, and others. All of this makes it even more important for the government to stay the course on reforms, but with sensitivity, not high-handedness.
Farmers block Zirakpur-Shimla highway at Chandimander toll plaza while protesting against the new farm laws, in Panchkula, Haryana on August 28. (HT photo) PREMIUM
Farmers block Zirakpur-Shimla highway at Chandimander toll plaza while protesting against the new farm laws, in Panchkula, Haryana on August 28. (HT photo)
Updated on Aug 31, 2021 03:59 PM IST
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ByHT Editorial

With the Haryana government deploying force to crack down on farm protests in Karnal on Saturday, a movement that was alive but relatively passive has assumed a new lease of life. As this newspaper reported on Tuesday, farm unions plan to hold a mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh on September 5 to broaden their agenda. From opposing the new farm laws, these unions will now oppose the government’s economic policies, including the recently unveiled asset monetisation programme. There is politics, economics and geography enmeshed in the new round of farm activism.

First, the politics. A simple rule in dealing with a mass movement — and there is no doubt that the farm agitation is a mass movement — is not to do anything to aggravate it. The central government has been clear that it will not revoke the farm laws, but it has also been careful in not using force even when farm protesters choked Delhi’s entry points or a segment turned violent on Republic Day.

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This is because in a volatile situation, there is always possibility of excessive force; this alienates protesting groups, adds to anger, and makes a resolution harder. Given the fusion of class and identity (Sikhs and Jats are at the forefront of the protests), using force is also an invitation to social turmoil. That is why the video of a Haryana bureaucrat (Karnal sub-divisional magistrate Ayush Sinha) telling policemen to “break the heads” of protesters — an unacceptable instruction by any standard — has become an instrument for further mobilisation.

This moment then has got enmeshed with geography and electoral calculations. The expansion of the farm movement from Punjab to Haryana and then to west UP, and from primarily Sikh farmers to Jat farmers, lent it more weight. Now, in the run-up to the UP elections, expect an anti-government offensive in west UP in a bid to mobilise farmers in general, and Jats in particular. But beyond the political calculus, there is an underlying political economy battle developing in India now. The government is committed to economic reforms — agricultural laws, privatisation, asset monetisation are all examples of this push. And while this newspaper believes that these are sound ideas, it is but natural that they will invite a backlash from those stakeholders who feel they will lose out as a result of the reforms. The farm groups are attempting to weave a wider narrative to collaborate with the Opposition, trade unions, and others. All of this makes it even more important for the government to stay the course on reforms, but with sensitivity, not high-handedness.

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