The Khalistani funded Jat-Sikh farmers from Punjab and Haryana, and their clean-shaven brethren from western Uttar Pradesh spearheading the agitation against the three farm laws have successfully snatched the advantage from a bumbling and indecisive government after the scandalous events on R-Day.
Showcasing it was the prime minister’s weak lament in his monthly “Mann Ki Baat” radio address on January 31 that the desecration of the tricolor at the Red Fort had pained every citizen, little realizing his own guilt in the episode. The Modi government’s reluctance to protect its policies and interests, be it the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or the farm laws, has done enormous damage to its image. And if the prime minster thinks his mousiness will convince critics and enemies that he is a democrat at heart, he is welcome to dream and fritter away the political capital amassed since 2014.
Even if we accept the theory propounded by some veteran political watchers that the mayhem at Red Fort was a stratagem approved by the PM to turn the tables on the two-month long protests along Delhi’s borders, the opportunity was lost due to the government’s abject failure to take time by the forelock and gain the upper hand.
Teaching rioters a lesson does not require spraying them with bullets. Allowing the police to give them a goodly hiding was more than enough to convey the message that the government is ready to wield the stick when necessary. Instead, it is the police which bore the brunt of the violence due to the acute paucity in numbers and the motivated delay in sending additional reserves. Around 394 cops ended up in hospital when it was the mobsters who ought to have arrived in stretchers.
Hair-raising video images of cops leaping into a dry moat inside the Red Fort or chased in tractors to save their lives was the right time to round up the farmer leaders and let them cool their heels in lock-up for a few days. Not many from the anti-Modi brigade would have had the nerve to oppose the action without betraying their disposition towards anarchy. Voices of the few wired to oppose any initiative to impose law and order would have been drowned out.
The Home ministry not only blundered in Delhi but also restrained the more resolute Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath from acting on his directive at the Ghazipur border. Protestors belonging to the Rakesh Tikait faction the Bharat Kisan Union (BKU) who were reduced to not more than 100-150 were asked to clear out by midnight on January 27-28. Imposition of Section 144 and snapping electricity was a clear sign that the government was serious about its intentions.
Failure to implement the order was a clear signal that the government developed cold feet at the eleventh hour, ostensibly after Rakesh Tikait was seen shedding crocodile tears over the pressure on him to vacate the site. Vacillation gave the defiant farmer leader breathing space to reorganize and regroup. Help from neighboring centers like Muzaffarnagar was requisitioned. With the result that Ghazipur was teeming with crowds within hours.
Striking while the iron is hot is generally the norm in such situations. Timing is crucial. Police experts admit the blunder of giving Tikait a few hours to clear out once the crowds had thinned following the decision of 2-3 unions to stay away from the agitation. The cops should have carted him off when he refused to quit the venue. The leader’s absence would have discouraged a repeat mobilization, at least not in the immediate aftermath.
Back then it is to square one with the farmers as determined as ever to get the laws repealed and the PM only a step away from caving in, completely. Reiteration to suspend the farm laws for 18 months boils down to just that. For the PM to say that the government is just a phone call away is the surest sign that a face saver is being actively sought. The exiled Kashmiri Hindu activist Sushil Pandit is not far wrong when he says that Modi has boxed himself into a corner. The farmers virtually have his neck under their knee as he pleads for relief.
Bottomline: Proximity to the capital and the funding power to mobilize large enough crowds to block one or two national highway is all it takes to make the Center come to its knees.
The olive branch extended to farmer unions makes a mockery of the Supreme Court order which put the laws in abeyance and asked an expert committee of agricultural experts to come up with a solution acceptable to both sides – in two months. Whether the SC will opt out or insist on playing the go-between remains unclear. All said and done, it is one huge mess of the government’s making. The only thing certain is the imminent loss of face.
The willingness to suspend the laws for 18 months is premised in the belief that the government will be in a stronger position to deal with the impasse once the upcoming state elections in Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala are concluded in the next 3-4 months, and more importantly UP, where polls are due early 2022.
Modi’s willingness to second the government’s honor and authority to the party’s electoral interests have lowered its prestige. Unfortunately, he cares not.
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