Farmers reject abeyance ploy

Government running out of options in face of resolute farmers' agitation

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Farmers’ leaders break for lunch during the 11th round of talks with the Central government on the controversial farm laws, at Vigyan Bhavan on January 22. Photo: PTI

Akhilesh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party, during a press conference in Lucknow on January 19. Photo: PTI

Agitating farmers reject the government’s ‘abeyance ploy’, leaving the BJP with no room to save its face, while the opposition gets ready to grill the ruling alliance in the upcoming Budget session of Parliament.

“Thrust and parry tactics versus do-or-die conviction.” This was how Jitendra Pradhan, an 82-year-old farmer from a village in Baghpat district in western Uttar Pradesh, reacted after the 11th round of talks between the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre and the farmers’ union ended on January 22.

Once again the talks failed to end the deadlock over the two-month-old farmers’ agitation in the national capital against the three controversial farm laws passed by the government in September 2020. Despite his advanced age and the physical difficulties caused by the biting Delhi cold and the intermittent rains, Pradhan has been a spirited participant in the farmers’ Delhi siege.

Speaking to Frontline over phone, he explained his description of the farmers’ struggle (“thrust and parry tactics” and “do-or-die conviction”) as a reference to what he had heard as a child from elders about the “Quit India” struggle of the 1940s. “The political manoeuvres of the British at that time were marked by tactics used in swordplay games, moving forward at times, sideways later and sometimes backwards, but the Gandhian struggle was driven by just one, resolute conviction; victory or death. What the Modi government has displayed in all these 11 rounds of talks is this thrust and parry game, while we are here to do or die.”

Also read: Farmers dig their heels in at protest sites on Delhi's borders

Pradhan specifically referred to the 10th round of talks, held on January 20, during which the government had offered to keep the implementation of the farm laws in abeyance for 18 months and form joint committees to discuss the various clauses of the three farm laws leading to and find an agreeable solution. Pradhan said that the real purpose of the Modi government’s offer was to obfuscate the farming community. He pointed out that when the offer was announced, experts on parliamentary procedure and the Constitution, such as P.D.T. Achary and Subhash Kashyap, made it clear that there was no way any government could keep the implementation of a law in abeyance.

He said: “It can only be withdrawn in Parliament or referred for legal scrutiny to the judiciary. We have already rejected the judiciary’s half-hearted efforts to intervene in our affairs. Thus, the Modi government’s pathetic games lay exposed before the determination and conviction of the farmers. Our straightforward demand from day one is this: complete repeal of the three Central farm acts and enacting a legislation for remunerative MSP [minimum support price] for all farmers.” Several farmers who had gathered as part of the Delhi siege, including a clutch of union leaders, echoed Pradhan’s words.

‘Abeyance’–Sangh Parivar ploy

Some higher-ups in the Union government, including two senior Ministers, as well as certain outfits affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), indicated that the “abeyance ploy” was arrived at after a series of discussions in the party and within the Hindutva combine. According to them, these discussions stressed on three points. First, the government, the political machinery of the BJP and the larger backup system of the Sangh Parivar outfits had thoroughly failed to realise the rising momentum of the farmers’ agitation right from the last week of September, when it had originally started. Secondly, the calculation that the unity of the farmers could be easily broken was thoroughly misplaced. Thirdly, in the background of the tremendous determination and dedication shown by the agitating farmers, there was a need to create the impression of the government making a course correction. Keeping the laws in abeyance was seen as a device that could help achieve this even as it would provide the government with some face-saving options.

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

During the discussions within the Parivar, it was also held that once the farmers withdrew their agitation on the basis of the “abeyance assurance”, the laws could be brought back in one form or the other.

However, the firm rejection of the offer by the farmers, especially the manner in which they rallied the views of parliamentary and constitutional experts to expose the fallacy of the “abeyance ploy”, ended up causing greater political discomfiture to the BJP and the government.

According to a senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh, negotiations had been initiated with a section of the nearly 40 major farmers’ unions constituting the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) and several unions had indicated their willingness to accept the “abeyance” offer.

However, when the SKM general body met after the offer was made, the government got a shocker when the morcha rejected the government’s ploy unanimously.

The senior BJP leader also said that the majority of unions in the SKM repeatedly brought up the martyrdom of 143 farmers during the Delhi siege and that its it was this emotive atmosphere at the meeting that forced those who were ready to accept the “abeyance” offer to reject it.

Notwithstanding all these interpretations, the leader as well as several associates of his in the Sangh Parivar acknowledged that the Modi government had suffered considerable loss of face after the 10th and 11th rounds of talks.

Also read: Long march to peasant unity

There is also a quiet acceptance within the government, as well as the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, that the forthcoming Budget session of Parliament, scheduled to begin on January 29, will witness a spirited attack by the opposition parties on the government’s obstinacy and recalcitrant attitude as far as the farmers’ demands are concerned.

Opposition leaders such as Sonia Gandhi, Congress president, Sharad Pawar, chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Akhilesh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), D. Raja, general secretary of the CPI, and Derek O’Brien, Trinamool Congress spokesperson, have made it clear that they will use the Parliament session to highlight the issues and demands of the farmers. The leaders are also considering a joint meeting to pass resolutions in favour of the agitating farmers.

Opposition’s solidarity campaigns

Parties such as the Congress, the NCP and the S.P. are also planning to launch on-the-ground campaigns and agitations before and during the Budget session. The S.P. already launched its campaign and agitation drive on January 23 with panchayat-level meetings. Thousands of party workers led by Akhilesh Yadav are expected to hold tractor rallies across Uttar Pradesh on January 26, expressing solidarity with the Republic Day tractor parade of the farmers on the outer roads of Delhi. Sharad Pawar has also announced a solidarity rally in Mumbai on January 25. The Congress is planning a series of block-level demonstrations followed by district-level agitations and conventions during the course of the Budget session.

Opposition leaders who spoke to Frontline, including Akhilesh Yadav and K.C. Venugopal, Congress general secretary, also said that the Modi government’s credibility was at an all-time low not only on account of the botched up “abeyance ploy” but owing to other developments such as the leak of a document exposing the nexus of Arnab Goswami, editor of Republic TV, with top political leaders through his WhatsApp chat transcripts.

Also read: Farmers' struggle in India offers a lesson in resilience

A senior leader of the Janata Dal (United) , a BJP ally which heads the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition in Bihar with Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister, told Frontline that the “Arnab Goswami WhatsApp chats” issue could well turn out to be something like the “Nira Radia tapes” moment for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2010.

Impact of ‘Arnabgate’

He said: “There is no denying that the conversations between Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta, former CEO of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), are very embarrassing and damaging. The kind of things said and claims made by Goswami has certainly put the government in a spot. But the most serious questions are about the security and strategic leaks evident in these chats.”

The chats came out into the open after the Mumbai Police submitted them to a Mumbai court in the TRP manipulation case filed against the Republic TV chief. The chats cover many topics, including sensitive ones, indicating that the journalist had prior information of highly sensitive and secret operations of the Modi government and the Army, including those relating to the air strike at “jehadi militant camps” in the Balakot region of Pakistan. (Story on page 32).

In the chats, Arnab Goswami is seen to be flaunting his proximity to BJP leaders and corporates, even going to the extent of saying “all Ministers are with us”. There are also disparaging references to BJP leaders such as the late Arun Jaitley, Prakash Javadekar, Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister, and Rajyvardhan Rathore, former I&B Minister, apart from offers to Partho Dasgupta to mediate with the political leadership on certain issues.

Sonia Gandhi termed the studied indifference of the BJP leadership on the controversy as “deafening silence”. She has called for a joint parliamentary committee probe on the contents of the chats and the context in which they were made. Following her statements, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) said in a resolution that the “revelations exposing the sordid conversations that have undoubtedly compromised national security make it clear that among those involved are persons in the highest echelons of government and there has been a breach of secrecy concerning vital and sensitive military operations”.

Also read: Arnab Goswami’s WhatsApp chats with former BARC official reveal conflict of interest and murky closeness to power centres, besides raising questions on journalistic ethics

According to the JD(U) leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the BJP leadership and the government may not be able to persist with this studied indifference during the course of the Parliament session. He said: “Especially because Ministers and leaders including Home Minister Amit Shah, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and BJP president J.P. Nadda had from time to time taken up cudgels for Goswami when he was being probed by the Mumbai Police on the TRP manipulation case. They had all portrayed Goswami as a champion of media freedom. This claim is clearly in tatters now.” Several leaders in the BJP, at different levels of the organisational structure, agreed with this line of argument.

Taking a composite view of the government’s games in dealing with the farmers’ agitation and the Goswami chats controversy, Akhilesh Yadav said that throughout the Modi regime of nearly seven years, sections of the media with a clear Hindutva bias or corporate vested interests had protected and defended the government and its unscrupulous governance and political track record.

He said: “Now it is interesting to see how, in the midst of a determined farmers’ agitation that has thoroughly exposed the shenanigans of the government to help its crony capitalist corporate associates and make exploitative inroads into the agricultural sector, this godi (lapdog) media is also getting parallelly exposed. The Parliament session that is coming up in this context has great importance and could well mark a historic milestone.” There are many takers for his view among political practitioners as well as observers.

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