Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday said his government was open to talks so long as they were based on “tark” and “tathya” (arguments and facts), while blaming opposition parties for misleading farmers about three new agriculture laws for their “political agenda”.
Modi staunchly defended his farm-reform agenda, which he said was needed to “modernise” the agrarian sector.
On the occasion of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birth anniversary, the Prime Minister released the year’s last tranche of PM-KISAN, the direct income-transfer scheme started by his government for farmers, making payments worth ₹18,000 crore to 90 million cultivators. Under the programme, farmers are provided income support of ₹6,000 a year, paid in three equal cash transfers of ₹2,000 — one every four months.
“I bow to farmers. A majority of them have supported the laws. I will never allow farmers’ interests to be compromised at any cost,” Modi said.
“We have brought changes to benefit farmers. We don’t claim we have all knowledge and only we know best. But there should at least be talks. I humbly request everyone, even to those opposed to our politics that we are ready for talks but talks should be based on ‘tark’ and ‘tathya’ (argument and facts).”
He added: “The country must modernise the farm sector and prepare for challenges to farming in the 21st century.”
Prior to a 51-minute virtual address to farmers, the PM chatted with farmers from six states via video conferencing — interactions geared to showcase achievements of farmers who have embraced new business models unleashed by the recent farm reforms.
For almost a month, farmers from Punjab, Haryana and elsewhere in northern India, have camped on the borders of Delhi to press the government to repeal the laws they fear will weaken their bargaining power and leave them at the mercy of powerful agribusinesses. Six rounds of talks between the government and farm unions have failed to break the impasse.
In his speech, Modi framed the ongoing agitation as a political “event”, in which his opponents were instigating “innocent farmers” with falsehoods. “I don’t blame farmers but those misleading them.”
Modi accused the Opposition of politicking, and said while at the beginning, the issues raised were genuine – such as that of minimum support prices (MSP) – the protests were “hijacked” by those with political agenda. “MSP was pushed aside and now they are demanding release from jail of those accused of violence… They want highways toll-free… Why have they shifted from farmer’s issues to new demands?” he asked.
“The Opposition is misleading farmers regarding MSP. If farmers want to sell at MSP, they can go to mandis. If they think they are getting price from private traders, they have the freedom,” said Modi, stressing that farmers will continue to get assured prices under his government.
He said some people were furthering their “political goals and ideologies” through the farmer protests.
“The people (politicians and activists opposing the laws) who are talking about mandis, agricultural produce market committees (APMC) are the ones who destroyed West Bengal, Kerala. There are no APMCs and mandis in Kerala. So, why are no protests in Kerala? Why don’t they start a movement there?” Both Bengal and Kerala are ruled by parties opposed to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Farm unions slammed the speech and accused the PM of trying to divide farmers. “He addressed farmers of only six states. He did not once address the farmers who are protesting. It’s his prerogative to decide who he wants to represent as PM. His speech was a fusion of false, fabricated and fake news,” said Avik Saha of the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee.
Opposition parties accused Modi of not addressing farmers’ demands.
“The Prime Minister is giving clarifications on television and his ministers are offering excuses through letters, but, the fact remains that he is busy in the servility of a handful of crony capitalists,” said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
Modi mounted a sharp attack on the Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government for “being the only state” to not implement the PM-KISAN scheme. “I regret that while all farmers getting it (cash support), only West Bengal government has deprived 70 lakh farmers of it. They are not benefiting because the West Bengal government due to political reasons are depriving them. It is a central scheme, its free for state government.”
The West Bengal government doesn’t implement the cash transfer scheme launched by Modi on 24 February 2019. It has said that it prefers to run its own income-support scheme for farmers.
“Instead of protesting against the West Bengal government for not implementing the PM-KISAN scheme, some people from Bengal are protesting in Punjab (against the farm laws),” Modi said.
Assembly polls in West Bengal are due in April-May next year and the BJP is looking to unseat the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress.
The PM also took on the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which ruled Bengal for three decades. “If you listen to a 15 years old speech of Mamata ji, then you will know how much this ideology has ruined Bengal,” he said.
“For the Opposition, the ongoing protests by farmers is an event management, a selfie moment,” Modi said.
The PM’s virtual interaction with farmers, which was broadcast nationally at panchayat offices, served as a platform to highlight the promises of a new agricultural economy that the laws purport to build.
“I have sold 85 quintal of soya to ITC Ltd. They assess the quality of produce in front of us and pay us accordingly on the same day. If there are impurities or excess moisture, the company tells us to and grade and sort out produce before selling,” Manoj Patedar, a farmer from MP, told the PM.
Gagan Pering of Arunachal Pradesh said he sold his produce through contract farming. In response, the PM mocked the claim of protesters that the new laws would allow corporations to grab the lands of small farmers.
“Okay, so the buyer took your produce. Did he also take your land? Some people are saying the new laws will allow traders to take away your land too,” the PM said.
Analysts said Modi’s speech craftily avoided implicating the farming community, an influential voting bloc, while laying the blame on political opponents. “He has sought to pitch it as a political battle, not as a battle of livelihoods and economics of farming. He avoided blaming farmers. That is the strategy the government appears to have adopted to deal with the protests,” said Abhinav Barbora, a political analyst with Silchar University.