Extreme responses weaken the govt’s case
Till recently, the intransigence over negotiations with the government on the contentious agri-marketing laws and vandalism at the Red Fort on Republic Day seemed to have weakened the position of the protesting farmers. In a matter of a week, however, the government’s extreme responses and absurd modes of retaliation appear to have handed back the advantage to the farmers. By choosing to put out a 334-worded statement through the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in response to two tweets in support of the protestors by singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg, the government has displayed a disproportionate sensitivity towards mild comments from celebrities of whom few Indians outside a minuscule elite would have heard.
Indeed, Ms Rihanna and Ms Thunberg can thank the government of India for making them households name among ruling party followers and middle-class Indians after the MEA went a step ahead and mobilised supporters via two hashtags — #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda. These hashtags created a momentum of their own with cricketers and Bollywood actors friendly to the regime dutifully tweeting their outrage. Had the MEA ignored Ms Rihanna and Thunberg’s tweets — one a link to a CNN story on the protest-related internet shutdown around Delhi and another a statement of support — the issue would have lapsed back to the domestic arena. Now US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece has added her voice in support. As it is, the statement, a combination of disingenuous claims about “a full debate and discussion” in Parliament — the crisis would not have been precipitated if that had been the case — and comically dark accusations of “vested interest groups” “mobilising international support” have attracted unwelcome global attention and left the government open to ridicule. Apart from the maverick former US president Donald Trump, governments and leaders rarely stoop to take on entertainers and celebrities.
The absurdity of the situation has only been enhanced with the Delhi Police filing a First Information Report (FIR) after Ms Thunberg’s tweets against a conspiracy among those “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language … and acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”. It is unclear how an FIR filed in a New Delhi police station will deter people in Barbados, Stockholm, Ottawa or anywhere else outside India from tweeting their support for farmers — indeed, the FIR encouraged Ms Thunberg, who has 4.7 million followers, to double down on her support. The police and the bureaucracy have scarcely covered itself in glory after the attack on the Red Fort had split the protestors. Had they desisted from openly threatening a leader of Rakesh Tikait’s capabilities, the protests may have run their course.
Instead, the political temperature has been raised even further with the police blocking highways with barbed wire and concrete barriers to deny farmers access to amenities such as toilets and drinking water. The threatening mobilisation of state might against sons of the soil is unlikely to hand the government a public relations victory. Together with the original error of pushing through the Bills without a modicum of debate in Parliament or reference to committee, the government’s serial mis-steps, rooted in the arrogance of a brute parliamentary majority, have ended up pushing back much-needed reforms in agricultural marketing by many years.