Modi govt’s inept handling of the farmers’ agitation now has the world’s attention
It will be counter-productive for it to continue to be in denial of the possibility that India’s image is taking a beating in the outside world
The protests by a “very small section of farmers” from “one state”- in the government’s words - have apparently sent India’s ruling party into a tizzy. This much is clear from its jittery response to the support extended to the farmers by several international celebrities.
The government’s nervousness over a series of tweets which commented unfavourably on its handling of the protests would have been amusing if it wasn’t also disheartening because of the impression it gave of the inability of the political establishment to comprehend the magnitude of the problem and its impact inside and outside the country.
This incomprehension is exemplified by the government’s schizophrenic response to the movement, castigating it as the handiwork of anti-national elements, mainly ‘Khalistani’ because of the presence of a large number of Sikhs, while not only holding 11 rounds of discussions with the farmers’ representatives but also proposing to keep the three controversial laws on hold for a year and a half.
It is obvious from these uncertain, blow-hot-blow-cold tactics that the government is at a loss as to how to deal with the situation. Not surprisingly, its edginess increased by several notches when influential global figures like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg with millions of followers on Twitter began siding with the protests largely on account of the repressive official steps taken against them like the shutting down of the Internet and the setting up of multiple barricades to prevent them from entering Delhi.
When External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar argues that a lot has been revealed by the “toolkit” or a blueprint for the agitation favoured by Greta Thunberg and others, his focus is apparently on the “motivated” nature, as he has said, of the campaign. But what has also been revealed is the refusal by the other democracies to endorse the steps taken so far in India to deal with the movement.
Hence, the calls by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to both the government and the farmers to exercise restraint and by the US State Department to ensure that the right of peaceful protests is not curtailed. Although this observation has followed an appreciation of the Indian government’s efforts to ‘open up’ the agricultural sector to private investment, the emphasis in the US is likely to be mainly on the official measures to counter the protests if only because these have continued for two-and-a-half months with no sign of being called off in the near future.
It is obvious that the longer the farmers persist with their sit-in demonstrations on Delhi’s border, the attention of the world will remain focussed on them even if the intelligence agencies find out who are “motivating” them. Such revelations may enable the government to paint the protests with a black brush, but it will nevertheless be seen as the kind of tricks which all governments follow when pushed to a corner.
One of these is to talk of an “international conspiracy”, which was the term which a minister of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government used in 1999 in connection with the burning to death of the Christian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons in Odisha, allegedly by saffron activists.
Even as the government tries to fend off the bogus ‘Bharat bashing’ endeavours, as Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has said, it will be counter-productive for it to continue to be in denial of the possibility that India’s image is taking a beating in the outside world.
The tarnishing of the reputation, which started in the wake of the lynching of Muslim cattle traders by the Hindutva cadres, reached its peak with the draconian measures taken in 2019 to enforce the sudden scrapping of Kashmir’s special constitutional status. The agitations against the citizenship laws by Muslims and now against the newly-enacted farm laws have inflicted further damage.
Interestingly, even as the world has begun to worry about the “democratic backsliding” that has taken place in India according to both the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute and the European Intelligence Unit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity is apparently on the rise if the opinion polls are to be believed.
But how reliable are they? The answer will be available in the next few months when assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are held.
But the strange dichotomy between disapproval abroad and admiration at home is likely to continue if the government remains thin-skinned about any criticism of its heavy-handed approach to what it obviously regards as ‘law and order problems’.
The government’s case is that the foreigners have no understanding of the nuances of, say, the farmers’ issues and, therefore, should keep quiet. But the point is that it isn’t the finer points of the dispute with which the foreign twitterati are concerned, but the harsh steps that are being taken to browbeat the protesters.
(Views expressed are personal)