‘Civil Disobedience’ Movement?

Raman Swamy

BJP chief ministers are viewing the Kisan Andolan (Peasant Movement) as an agitation aimed at undermining the authority of elected governments and posing a law and order problem. That is why more than 20,000 policemen have been deployed in rural districts identified as potential 'trouble-spots'—with strict instructions to avoid using guns as far as possible (to prevent another Mandsaur or Tuticorin or Jallian-wala Bagh).

But the BJP government at the Centre is looking at the farmers uprising from a different perspective altogether. Senior Ministers and bureaucrats are recognisng that this is a civil disobedience movement in the making, with the potential of being as much of a game-changer as Gandhi's salt satyagraha. Historical comparisons are usually inappropriate, particularly when there are differing views on whether the Salt March achieved its objective or not. However, like the British rulers in the 1930s the BJP government today is faced with a peaceful mass movement which it finds difficult to comprehend and cope with.

As reports keep trickling in that farmers are joining the protest in droves in State after State (most of them BJP-ruled) and that the call by the activist organisations to boycott mandis is gaining traction in Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and beyond. Union Home Ministry officials have been taking stock of the escalating situation by the hour, with the awareness that this is just the beginning of the ten-day action plan.

The BJP leadership is still smarting from the humiliation of the series of by-election defeats and party spokespersons find it easy to shut their eyes to the root causes of the farmers' stir by blaming the Congress party for instigating and inciting the kisan revolt.

The Modi government too is incensed that its elaborate celebrations of four years in power have been torpedoed by a variety of crises—the two-day paralysis of banking operations being the most recent embarrassment.

Signs of growing prospects of Opposition unity and muscle-flexing by NDA alliance partners have further dampened the mood of the BJP rank and file, at a time when even the normally starry-eyed mainstream media has been tepid in its coverage of the Prime Minister's foreign expedition to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Instead of being lionised for his Act East initiative, Narendra Modi returns home to just as the kisan andolan gathers momentum. Television screens are showing alarming visuals of milk being poured and vegetables being dumped on the road by defiant producers and growers and wholesale markets wearing a deserted look in town and country across the land.

The Prime Minister's administrative advisors are evidently urging him to grasp the significance of what the farmers are doing—i) they are challenging and disrupting the established agricultural supply chain; ii) they are in effect directly exposing the profiteering role played by traders, transporters and middlemen; iii) they are precipitating a severe shortage of milk, fruits and vegetables in urban India.

Narendra Modi does not need his party advisors to spell out the devastating political impact this sequence of events will have on the BJP's electoral fortunes and, indeed, on Modi's own personal popularity and leadership image.

Within the Sangh Parivar it is taken for granted that the trading community has always been the backbone of support to the BJP (and the Jana Sangh in its earlier avatar). If the stranglehold over agricultural marketing that traders, middlemen and wholesalers have enjoyed till now is broken or even diluted as a consequence of the current uprising by farm producers, the backlash will be brutal for the BJP in terms of hard cash contributions as well as manpower and lung power support.

Moreover, sky-rocketing prices due to shortage of supplies of milk, fruits and vegetable in towns and cities would arouse the anger of urban India and alienate the BJP from the middle-class support base.

It is hardly surprising therefore that instructions have evidently been sent to chief ministers like Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Manoharlal Khattar and Devendra Fadnavis to deal with the farmers with an iron hand, to project the andolan as a conspiracy fed and fanned by the Congress party and to do whatever is necessary to sow seeds of suspicion and distrust among the 130-odd farmers' bodies involved in the countrywide stir.

In stark contrast to this approach is the empathy exhibited by Punjab chief minister Amrinder Singh who has issued a statement saying he understood the logic behind the farmers’ movement which he said "was an act of desperation".

Even more evocative was the promptness with which the Captain's colourful colleague, Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu drove down to a village in Fatehgarh Sahib and purchased milk and vegetables directly from a farmer.

He had clearly and instinctively grasped the rationale behind the protest—'we will not sell our produce to unscrupulous middlemen who pay us a pittance and sell to consumers at an exorbitant profit; if you want fresh fruits, vegetables and milk, come to our village, pay us a decent amount and fulfil your needs'.

That is exactly what Sidhhu did and what thousands of urban residents ought to do in the days ahead.

Vol. 50, No.52, Jul 1 - 7, 2018