Faced with one of the most tenacious farmers’ agitations in decades, the Narendra Modi government is not inclined to repeal the contentious agri reform laws at the centre of raging protests that have lately spilled beyond Punjab and Haryana to the Jatland of Uttar Pradesh. This intent was underlined on Saturday by Union minister of state for commerce Som Parkash, the sole representative of Punjab in the central cabinet who was part of three-member ministerial team that held 11 rounds of negotiations with farmers in the past two months without any breakthrough. In an exclusive interview with Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak, the first-time Hoshiarpur MP spoke about the government’s approach to stem the farmers’ ire and blunt the opposition’s attack, and the political repercussion of the agitation for the BJP in Punjab and beyond. Excerpts:
After the breakdown of their negotiations with the Centre, farmer unions remain unrelenting in their protests against the three farm laws. What is the way forward on the logjam?
At the eleventh and last rounds of talks, the Centre offered to suspend the laws for one-and-a-half years and constitute a committee with representatives of farmers to deliberate on the laws before their implementation. That is the best offer the government could make. These laws were enacted because it is in the interest of farmers and best for them. But the message that the farm unions conveyed was that these are against the farmers. Unfortunately, they succeeded in that and it became a movement. Their propaganda is that the farmers’ land will be snatched by corporates. The laws have nothing like that. It is all for the farmers’ welfare by opening additional mandis and modernising cultivation techniques. The government agreed to amend the provisions about which the unions voiced their concerns. Also, the bills on electricity and pollution were taken off. All this was put on the table after talks with them (unions). In the meetings, they agreed to certain proposals and promised to revert the next day. But when they went back, they came under pressure from people with radical views. They scared the union leaders and forced them to backtrack and demand the repeal of laws. They (radical elements) are now being identified.
Short of repeal and other than putting the laws on hold, what are the other options before the government?
What can be a better option when the government has offered to suspend the laws itself for 18 months?
But the unions want nothing but repeal?
They should not be so obstinate. They will have to find a way out of what has been offered in the last round of negotiations and come forward to talk to the government. If they are sticking to this (demand for repeal), they may have a different agenda on their mind.
What is that agenda?
They can tell that. I don’t know. We are willing to amend and suspend, what else do they want?
So, you are ruling out the repeal?
This is what was conveyed in the last talks by agriculture minister (Narendra) Tomar sahib. Why are we stuck on the repeal? Whatever is there in it (laws) against the kisan, we are ready to change that. Demanding this (repeal) is rubbish. This law is for the entire country, and not only some farmers of two or three states. If someone gets violent or gathers crowds by telling lies, how can the government yield to such antics and repeal Acts passed by an elected Parliament? There are a lot of people who appreciate these laws.
But now that protests are swelling beyond Punjab and Haryana, is the Centre open to reconsidering its position and calling farmer leaders for talks?
Only the agriculture minister can tell that. But it was made clear to the unions in the last round of talks that this (suspension of laws) is the maximum we can give… nothing beyond that. That was the best the Centre could offer. They should have responded to it.
Almost the entire opposition has rallied behind the unions’ demand for repeal.
It was a considered opinion of the government that we are ready to amend or delete any clause/provision in the farm laws that is seen against the interest of farmers. But why are they insisting for repeal of entire laws? These were enacted in keeping with interests of the whole country, not Punjab and Haryana alone. The opposition (to the laws) is in these two states, not in the whole country.
Why can’t these laws be repealed?
Then we should shut down Parliament and ask farmers, with raising of hands, what to do and what not to do. It is a prerogative of Parliament. Nobody can dictate. Whatever is against the interest of farmers in the Act, we are ready to delete that. But they are interested in repeal of the Act. This is not just for Punjab and Haryana farmers; it is for entire country. It is in the interest of the other farmers.
Is there is a likelihood of talks again?
Right now, talks are deadlocked. If the unions come forward with any proposal based on our last offer, the government can discuss that. Political parties which have been supporting these reforms want to derive political benefit out of this situation.
Several union leaders have been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) after the Republic Day violence. Hasn’t that complicated the way to any future talks?
The storming of Red Fort by unruly farmers has been roundly condemned by all. Farm unions violated their pact with Delhi Police. Ultimately, they will have to see what is right and what is wrong. We can’t compromise with the country’s interests and that of the state. They have to understand their responsibility. Agitation doesn’t mean gathering crowds by raising emotional slogans and falsehoods. Handling them is also their responsibility. The union leaders brought lakhs of tractors to Delhi and created chaos. They should have taken the moral responsibility for whatever happened and suspended their agitation. Itna bada gunah kiya hai unho ne (They have committed a big crime).
In Punjab, there is a groundswell of support for the farmers’ agitation. Since you represent the state in the Union cabinet, what role do you see for yourself to resolve the issue?
I have been espousing Punjab’s interests in the Centre. The package the government offered was the result of a lot of discussions and requests. The farmers’ sentiments are on the top of my mind.
The opposition has closed its ranks in mounting pressure on the government to repeal the laws.
All these parties were votaries of these farm reforms in the past. They were part of the Congress manifesto. Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister of the UPA government, had supported these reforms in Parliament. The Shiromani Akali Dal spoke in favour of the reforms for two or three months after our government brought an ordinance last year. Even Parkash Singh Badal publicly endorsed it. Where are the moral values of these political parties?
BJP leaders in Punjab are facing an intense and sustained backlash from farmers. Has that hurt the party politically?
In politics, there are gheraoes and protests. That doesn’t mean we stop doing the right things. Our party will reach out to people and share its views. Everything can’t be linked with votes. Vote dalenge ya nahin… party ka ya hoga….We have to see the interest of farmers, the country and the state.
There are dogged protests even in your home turf of Hoshiarpur.
Hoten hain protest. Kya kar sakte hain. I can only place my views before the government and people. Aur kya kar sakte hain (What else can I do?).
There are apprehensions that the protests may spiral into a law and order problem. What is your sense of what lies ahead?
A lot of people are trying to vitiate the atmosphere. Some are projecting it as a Sikh versus Hindu issue, others as a Delhi versus Punjab face-off. That is unfortunate. The governments are worried whenever there is a serious agitation. That is why we are offering to amend and suspend the laws despite there being no flaws in it.
What worries you about the agitation?
My worry is that this will impede Punjab’s development. No outside corporate will come and invest in the state if you boycott and raise a bogey against them.
Is the Centre open to farmers’ demand for a legal guarantee for minimum support price?
The MSP has been going on since 1965. It is 100% procurement in Punjab and Haryana. The PDS Act clearly says that the government shall procure at MSP. Then why do they want a legislation? There is no logic or rationale.
The opposition parties allege that the Narendra Modi government is being arrogant and insensitive in dealing with the farmers’ demands?
They are lying. These reforms have been the agenda of the Congress for 20 years. Listen to their speeches in Parliament and read their manifestoes. We held 11 long rounds of talks with the unions. Is this arrogance? All their suggestions were considered for possible solutions. But, when they went back to the protest sites, they changed their mind because they are being dictated by other forces they are scared of. Now, they are disowning them.
But, one of them is Deep Sidhu, who is said to be affiliated with the BJP?
He may have been with the BJP at some point of time, but he was disowned many months ago by our Gurdaspur MP.
The opposition alleges the Modi government’s complicity in the Republic Day violence to discredit the farmers’ stir.
That is an irresponsible charge. Ask anyone lodged in jail for a criminal case, he will blame someone else for implicating him.
What is your sense on the political fallout of the farmers’ agitation for the Modi government?
The BJP is the world’s largest party and knows how to manage things. When following the right path, we need not bother whether this will get us less votes or more votes.