The protests against the agrarian laws represent a significant moment in mass political mobilisation in India. There is no doubt that this is a genuine mass movement, especially in Punjab where across classes and the political divide, there is an overwhelming mood against the agricultural reforms. The government’s concessions, farm leaders have decided, are not enough and nothing less than a repeal would do — and with that objective, have intensified their protests. The government, on the other hand, believes that the movement has been taken over by “political” elements which are not interested in a solution.
While the strengths of the farm movement are clear, the problem with the movement is not too much politics, but too little politics. Politics entails different elements, and agitation is only one of them. Good politics also involves the ability to negotiate, reconcile the demands of a movement with the possibilities of what can be attained, a recognition of the balance of power, and when to declare victory. This element of politics is missing in the farm movement. Once the protests escalated, and the government had no choice but to engage and offer concessions, good political leadership among protesters would have meant leveraging the moment. Symbolically claiming that a government led by a strong prime minister had to eventually listen to them, and substantially recognising that there is now a more equal playing field between mandis and markets with private traders and an assurance of continued minimum support price, would have helped calm tempers.
But the fact that this political leadership is missing is visible in the competitive radicalism of the different unions which constitute the protests. No one wants to be seen as “compromising” for fear of being seen as “sold out” to the government or corporates — and no group has the courage to tell the farmers, whose fears they have stoked in the past four months, that the deal on offer is reasonable. Movements without this kind of political character often make the mistake of overreach and lose ground. The farm movement has brought the issue of the future of agriculture and the security of farmers to the centre stage; it has forced the government to climb down; it now needs to declare victory — perhaps after a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself — and allow the political process to continue.