December 9, 2023

Question mark over farm talks, protest leaders on backfoot

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“Our strategy going forward will definitely change,” said a source in the Government. “You cannot enter Red Fort by force, plant a flag there and then say let’s talk about the laws.”

Over the last two months, the farmers’ unions had worked strenuously to ensure that their protest against the Centre’s new farm laws remained free of any law-and-order incidents. That their counter to critics who called them names — from Naxals to Khalistanis — was peaceful protests. However, the violence in the national capital on Republic Day, a crowd breaking away to storm Red Fort, has given the Government an opportunity to press its case that the agitation involves not just farmers but hardline elements as well.

It is expected to underline this in what is expected to be a fractious Budget session of Parliament. That its offer of keeping the new laws on hold was rejected by the unions and this was followed by Tuesday’s violence. The Government will also use the fact that farm unions and even the Congress government in Punjab have distanced themselves from and condemned Tuesday’s incidents, especially at Red Fort.

“Our strategy going forward will definitely change,” said a source in the Government. “You cannot enter Red Fort by force, plant a flag there and then say let’s talk about the laws.”

“If farmer leaders arrive at an agreement with us and these people (agitators) do not accept that, what will these leaders do? Today’s incidents show their writ may not even run,” the source said.

With chaotic scenes unfolding in Delhi, as protesters breaching barricades, attacked policemen and entered Red Fort to hoist a religious flag, senior Union Ministers remained silent. “Pending an assessment of what has happened and what went wrong, we don’t want to say anything,” said a senior official.

Sources also pointed out that the tractor parade going awry could become an “exit point” for the farmers’ unions who will need to signal that their authority as negotiators isn’t compromised.

“The Government has so far been flexible and made many compromises which the farmers have rejected. Now that things have taken a different turn and unruly elements threaten to derail the talks, we hope farm leaders use this opportunity to help facilitate a resolution,” said another source in the Government.

Officials also pointed out how Delhi Police had been “measured” in its response, except for firing tear gas shells.

Since December, the BJP had tried to downplay the protests, saying they were Opposition-backed and limited to Punjab. Some of its leaders had even termed the protesters as “Khalistanis” and “Maoists” although Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had stepped in to say that “such allegations should not be made by anyone” against any farmer.

However, there is a move now to recalibrate the party’s position. Late Tuesday, BJP chief J P Nadda held discussions with senior leaders at the party’s headquarters to decide strategy.

Senior party leader P Muralidhar Rao gave an indication of that. Speaking with, he said: “We were thinking the protest was against the formula the Government offered as reforms. But it appears that it is against the Indian Republic and its spirit. What happened in the national capital today was a violation of trust and freedom.”

“In democracy, you can have mobilisation that challenges the Government. It may appear to be humiliating the Government and Ministers. But you cannot challenge the sovereignty and spirit of the Republic. This is what was demonstrated today and we cannot agree to it,” Rao said.

BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya took to Twitter and asked: “What happened in Delhi in the name of movement? Can the farmer in the country do this?”

BJP leader Ram Madhav blamed the Opposition for the violence. “After peddling all sorts of falsehoods about farm law reforms n provoking farmers into aggressive action, the Indian versions of Trump like Rahul (and) ilk are now demonstrating pseudo-indignation at violence. They (are) equally responsible for whatever happened in Delhi today,” he posted on Twitter.

Party spokesperson Sambit Patra posted on Twitter visuals of agitators climbing on the flag staff in front of Red Fort to hoist their flag and wrote: “Sad!” In another tweet in Hindi, he posted that “those whom we have been calling annadata (food-providers) all these days proved to be ugravadi (extremists) today. Do not discredit the annadata, call the ugravadi as ugravadi only.”

However, at least two senior party leaders pointed out that the Government will have to “tread cautiously” as it “cannot be seen as anti-farmer” or take any action that will provide a trigger for the farming community in other parts of the country to escalate the protests.

So far, there have been 11 rounds of talks between the Government and protesting farm unions, with Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar leading a Ministerial team in discussions with 41 farmer representatives.

After the talks on December 22, Tomar had alleged that “some forces” wanted to continue the agitation at all costs. “Naturally, when…the Government is ready to resolve the issue related to the farmers and a decision cannot be taken, we can guess that there are some forces that want to continue this agitation,” Tomar had said.

On Monday, in his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, President Ram Nath Kovind had reached out to the farmers and said that the “path to reform” may initially cause “misapprehensions” but the Government is “singularly devoted” to their welfare.

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