First, the politics. Quite frankly, at one level, the above mentioned fault lines may well be superficial as the celebrities in question hardly have any locus standi to comment on Indian politics, except that some of the posted content confirmed GoI’s assumptions, which up until then were based on intelligence that held little credibility without proper attribution in the public space.
The toolkit — the ‘how to’ guide for a social media strategy — attached to one of the posts provided that attribution link, which prompted GoI to make matters official. But still, why? After all, such toolkits are regular material in any protest dynamic. The reason, perhaps, lay somewhere in the political logjam that the protests had led to. GoI, despite provocation, had scrupulously avoided using force. It was important to do that because any untoward incident could have led to larger ramifications, with non-State actors ready to provide the ‘multiplier effect’. Politically, the BJP leadership clearly did not want to provide any real fodder to provoke a conflict situation with Sikh groups.
Contrary to the general view, it was the awareness of the Sikh sentiment and Punjab’s difficult past that informed this caution. GoI, it appears, was extremely worried to be seen taking any sort of violent action against Sikh protesters, even as many groups gathered in sizeable numbers outside Indian missions and consulates in Canada.
In other words, by mid-January, the prolonged farmers’ protests had put GoI on the backfoot, stalemated negotiations and strapped when it came to using coercive means to disperse the agitators. The margin of error and hope had narrowed, a fact best reflected in the chaos around the tractor parade and the unfortunate events on Republic Day.
It was in this backdrop that the toolkit gave GoI a chance to reverse the pressure. With campaign material talking about massive protests against Indian missions in North America, Britain and Europe, South Block thought best to press on the pedal with host governments.
Hand in the Till
Now, many of these governments, particularly the US and Canada, have officially asked, in fora such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), India to introduce reforms in the farm sector. But for political reasons, parties in power in some of these countries were apparently not being very helpful on the ground, even though there were strict rules of assembly due to Covid-19 protocols.
Since there was now a docket of documents that spoke of organising protests in front of Indian missions, making matters ‘official’, this forced countries like Canada take a position in the matter. Indian diplomats were recently given the same grade of security as Cabinet ministers in Canada. So, it did serve some practical purpose. But the real political gain for GoI was that it allowed for a ‘nationalist’ counter to a borderless, growing ‘liberal’ network that was stealing the agenda until this moment.
The second, more serious, question is what all of this means for the future. Here is where the governance aspect needs to be looked at carefully. Reforms always evoke resistance. The onus, more than often than not, falls on the government to implement such decisions in the larger good. It has happened in the past too, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself reminded the Rajya Sabha on Monday about resistance to the Green Revolution in the 1960s.
The resistance, of course, has to be addressed through all democratic means available. The problem occurs when it acquires the form of a mass protest like the current one. Here, one must say that the best chance is always in reaching out early, than allow matters to linger. And this is even more important in today’s digital era, where amplification is far easier and quicker compared to earlier decades.
The bigger worry, thus, for GoI is not resistance to reforms, as such, but also the means. The possibility now exists that the current agitation may have given a template on how to stall decisions of this government. In this context, law and order authorities need to take a closer look at their role. This case has seen the police act only in extremes. Either it was complete inaction, which led to a ‘religious flag’ being hoisted on the Red Fort premises, or strong penal action against those who were found errant on social media platforms.
Protest as a Test
The police could possibly not have had exhausted all other means of persuasion to peacefully relocate agitators while still letting them protest. Law enforcement authorities are trained to negotiate a method, means and place of protest without getting into the merits of the issue, which form a separate political conversation.
GoI needs to inquire on this count, because given the reform measures the Union budget promises, more protests cannot be ruled out. What then? GoI can’t keep postponing implementation schedules. Which is why it may want to consider marshalling its administrative resources better to engage and convince detractors, so that issues are addressed in time — not with time.