Covid vaccine and farmers' agitation

Diversion vs determination: Government plan to overshadow farmers' protest with COVID-19 vaccine dry run fails

Print edition : January 29, 2021

Akhilesh Yadav , president of the Samajwadi Party, at a press conference in Lucknow on January 2. Photo: PTI

At a demonstration where farmers burnt copies of the new farm laws and pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, near Amritsar on January 9. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Leaders of farmers’ organisations after the eighth round of talks with the Central government over the new farm laws, in New Delhi on January 8. Photo: PTI

Farmers and their supporters pitching tents at a petrol pump near their agitation site at Singhu border, in New Delhi on January 5. Photo: PTI

The Modi regime’s latest attempt to overshadow the growing farmers’ agitation with a grandiose vaccine dry run hits a roadblock, with many experts raising questions about its rollout. And the protesters are in no mood to relent.

The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is well known for unleashing political tactics to effectively divert people’s attention from governance failures and foibles. In fact, this has been one of the striking features of Modi’s six-and-a-half-year regime over two terms. However, all the expertise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led (RSS) Sangh Parivar in this regard has come to nought in the face of the spirited agitation of farmers, who have practically laid siege to Delhi since the last week of November 2020.

During these past seven weeks, the Modi regime has thrown tactic after tactic to foil the farmers’s agitation against three controversial farm laws, which are widely perceived to be pro-corporate and anti-farmer. These have ranged from branding those participating in the agitation as anti-national Khalistanis to efforts at breaking their ranks through persuasion, inducement and threats, apart from launching divisive propaganda on caste and communal lines. It has also repeatedly used the COVID-19 pandemic to distract attention from the farmers’ unflinching agitation and arguments against these laws.

Also read: Political impact of the farmers' Delhi siege

However, as things stood in the second week of the new year, after the failure of the eighth round of talks between the government and the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) held on January 8, the collective of the farmers has not only withstood all these ‘offensives’ but intensified its agitation.

Vaccine dry run

One of the central elements of the government’s machinations in the new year was the rollout of the dry run of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Health and Home departments drew up detailed plans during the last two weeks of 2020 to make the rollout a grand administrative and political spectacle, keeping the focus entirely on Modi.

The Prime Minister himself led the preparations for this from the front, with visits to vaccine production centres and interactions with various stakeholders, including scientists and corporate leaders financing certain segments of the production of COVID-related medicines. The regime’s plan was to build up these preparatory moves into a series of grandiose events that would overshadow the farmers’ agitation.

However, reservations about the trials expressed by several medical and epidemiological experts, including those renowned in the field such as Gagandeep Kang, a professor at Christian Medical College, Vellore, became a hurdle of sorts to the government’s plan to go all out with its plan. Several experts in government facilities related to vaccine experiments also privately question the hasty rollout of the dry run of the vaccine.

Also read: Shady approval for Bharat Biotech's Covaxin

In a statement, Malini Aisola of the All-India Drug Action Network (AIDAN) demanded that in the interests of transparency, the regulator ought to share the detailed rationale for the decision along with disclosure of data. She went on to add that the AIDAN was baffled and unable to understand what scientific logic had motivated top experts in the Subject Expert Committee (SEC) to hastily approve one of the vaccines in question (Covaxin).

These views, naturally, had political reverberations, with opposition leaders ranging from former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Akhilesh Yadav, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Dayanidhi Maran raising pointed questions about the inadequate trials and the logic behind the hurried rollout.

‘BJP vaccine’

Akhilesh Yadav’s comments were the most biting as he derided the rollout plan with the epithet “BJP vaccine” and asserted that he would not be taking it. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan castigated the comment as one that insulted the scientists and medical professionals involved in the development of the vaccine. Many others, including some social observers without political associations, criticised the ‘BJP vaccine’ terminology.

But sections of the agitating farmers, who apparently were the real targets of the Modi government’s publicity blitzkrieg over the vaccine dry run, were all praise for Akhilesh Yadav’s comment. Speaking to Frontline over phone, farmers gathered at Delhi’s border said that the epithet ‘BJP vaccine’ describes accurately something that is ill conceived, poorly planned or inadequate. The refrain among this group was that the track record of the BJP and the Modi government was replete with blunders such as demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST) implementation, which have turned out be embodiments of the actions of a visionless government. In such a context, they argued, there was no better phrase than ‘BJP vaccine’ to describe a drug whose efficacy is questionable.

No mood for compromise

Evidently, the agitating farmers who have gathered on the outskirts of the national capital braving biting cold and torrential rains, are least bothered about the government’s publicity blitz. Leaders of the various farmers’ organisations involved in the agitation told Frontline that the mood among the protesters was such that even if the leadership got ready to think of a compromise, the rank and file would not agree.

Also read: Politics drives India's fight against COVID-19

A senior leader said: “They do not want to go back to their villages if the controversial farm laws are not repealed. It is no longer a normal or conventional agitation. It has literally become a battle for survival, which is also a battle for self-respect and the collective pride of the farming community. An overwhelming majority of those who have gathered feel that if they go back with a compromise, they will have no face to show in the villages.”

The net result of all this is that the farmers are talking about continuing the struggle even for years. Summing up this spirit, Rakesh Tikait, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader, told Frontline that the farmers were determined to stay on until May 2024, when the next Lok Sabha election is due, if the government does not repeal the laws.

He said: “On October 13, when the first of the serious interactions with the government started, the number one item in our memorandum was the demand for repeal of the three farm laws. Three months on, it remains the number one agenda in our list. As you can see, we are not wavering or shifting stands. The earlier the government withdraws these draconian laws, the earlier it will get peace. The farmers can go on and on as we are the ones who have battled the elements for ages to provide food for the rest of the world.”

Unshakeable unity

The overall mood in all the venues of the agitation is that the protests can go on for any length of time in this struggle, even if the government or the political class as a whole or other institutions such as the judiciary do not offer succour.

Col. Subhash Chandra Deswal (retd), a progressive farmer, and Prof. Sudhir Kumar Panwar, a farm policy analyst, who have been observing the agitation right from its early stages are of the view that the lack of trust in institutions is conspicuous among the farmers. Deswal said: “They have realised that everyone, the government, the political class, the judiciary and even the media, have not done even an iota of justice to the farmers. They also realise that these farm laws are their death knell and that if they do not fight now, they will be left with nothing to fight for. This conviction has enhanced the emergence of the farmers as a political entity of their own.”

Also read: Farmers' resistance to farm laws hardens

Deswal and Panwar pointed out that the cohesion and conviction within the farmers’ collective is so strong that no divisive ploy is able to shatter its unity. Right from the beginning of the Delhi siege there were attempts to divide the farmers on caste and communal lines. First, the agitation was branded as a Sikh-dominated affair led by farmers from Punjab. The farmers responded to this criticism by increasing the participation of farmers from Haryana, a majority of whom were Hindu Jats.

Then a murmur campaign was launched with the claim that the agitation was basically one led by the Jat communities in the Sikh and Hindu fold. The response from the farmers was to increase the number of non-Jat Hindus in the agitation, including those from distant States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand.

The marshalling of forces from the ground-level has been accompanied by a resolute rejection of efforts of political parties such as the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to make political capital out of the agitation. The agitating farmers vociferously rejected the claim of Sukhbir Badal, an SAD leader, that the majority of the farmers gathered at Delhi belonged to his party.

The January 7 tractor march, termed as “a dress rehearsal” for Republic Day, was also an indication of the farmers’ assertion that their new-found organisation was a political entity with a pluralistic identity. The national flag was the dominant image in the tractor march.

Clearly, the sustained peaceful nature of the agitation and the phenomenal cohesion and conviction shown by the participants have really made it historic.

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