Democracy and dissent

When an all-powerful government, well enthroned in the seats of power in the world’s biggest democracy, bows down to the will of a section of its people and decides to reverse one of its signature policies, the rest of the democratic world has cause to take note. For nearly a year now, unprecedented and sustained protests by India’s farming community have besieged the outskirts of the capital Delhi in general and the Narendra Modi Government in particular, which, until last week, insisted that its controversial farm laws sought to strengthen the millions of small farmers in that country.

But the farmers had very different ideas about the three controversial laws introduced by the Modi Government that necessarily re-wrote the statute books on the existing mechanisms for storage, pricing, and sale of India’s farm produce. Notwithstanding the merits of the controversial new farm laws, which, in fact, found favour with sections of the farming community who were rooting for it, the Modi Government, no doubt driven by impending electoral compulsions, was forced to bow down to the will of the greater majority and accept defeat in the face of the sustained farmer protests – but not before a heavy price had to be paid with dozens of the protesting farmers perishing due to the ravages of the weather as well as the Covid pandemic, colossal disruptions to farm output, as well as disruptions to civilian life in and around the capital, for almost a year. Opposition parties are now calling for reparations for the damage caused due to the controversial policy decision, which, until the announcement of its withdrawal by the Prime Minister, was steadfastly defended by his ministers and the rest of the Government as the best thing that happened to India’s farming community.

The resemblance of this saga across the Palk Straits to our own ongoing farmers’ strife is striking, to put it mildly. Here too, we have a government that has announced a radical policy, vis-à-vis shifting from chemical-based agriculture to organic almost overnight, leaving farmers helpless and desperately pleading for help to save their withering fields, while ministers and the rest of the Government sing hosannas in praise of the divisive shift. Though the two scenarios are decidedly different in terms of policy, the resultant issues are more or less the same, with the farming community in the neighbouring countries being at the receiving end of ill-timed and ill-conceived government policy.

The big question these days is whether the Government in Colombo has comprehended the profound nature of the issue it has created for itself. The Modi Government has been circumspect enough to realise, sooner than later, the fundamental point that the farming community in this part of the world is akin to a sacred cow and one does not usually take them on and escape unhurt. To do so is to commit political hara kiri. If that course has been embarked on, as in the case of the Modi example, the only alternative is to exit with the least possible damage. Whether Colombo will have a similar appetite to lick its wounds and mitigate the damage already caused remains to be seen, but the more it delays addressing the issue, the more damage it will cause all round. After all, it is the considered view of many that the switch to organic farming was motivated by less than noble intentions, with the forex crisis being the main motivator. That said, a policy reversal seems imminent with only the “when and how” needing to be determined.

However, the damage already caused to the farming community, in particular, who have been turned into beggars overnight, and the country in general, owing to the skyrocketing prices of farm produce, is colossal, and likely to have a profound impact on the political fortunes of the regime. The shortsightedness of the policy is already apparent, with food shortages imminent and the shortfall requiring to be imported. The bottom line is that the import bill for such buffer food imports will be far greater than what would have originally been spent on fertiliser imports. Therefore the penny wise, pound foolish policy decision is bound to carry a very heavy economic as well as political price tag for the regime.

Given the profound nature of the threat to their livelihood and by extension their very existence, caused by the sudden change in policy, farmers as well as consumers have every right to air their grievances within the democratic space provided for by the Constitution of the republic. For a hungry farmer staring at starvation, Covid and health regulations are understandably of little consequence, yet the fact that they have adhered to the regulations in place and acted within the confines of the law has earned them increasing public support. Such support will justifiably make any incumbent regime jittery and therefore, predictably, make it resort to irrational and clumsy mitigatory action.

It must be placed on record that the spontaneous farmer protests have been devoid of any political colouration, as that community as a whole was faced with a genuine livelihood issue and the Government, for its part, made a monumental miscalculation in painting it in opposition colours. With opportunity knocking on its door, the collective Opposition did what any opposition would do when presented with such an opportunity and adopted the cause. The rest is history, with the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) protest march and rally in Colombo last week being the crescendo of the growing wave of protests.

If the regime blundered on its assessment of the political capital accruing to the Opposition on account of its ill-conceived policy, it blundered further by squandering the little goodwill it held, at least in the eyes of the international community, by the manner in which it unleashed the Police to stifle the Opposition’s protest march last week. In an unprecedented and co-ordinated action, busloads of protestors were prevented from entering the boundaries of the Western Province by overzealous police acting on orders from above.

For its part, the SJB resorted to the only option available to it within the democratic framework by deciding to move to the apex court to determine the legitimacy of what appears to be high-handed police action when the majority of the courts in which the Police sought orders to prevent the protests, ruled in favour of the protesters and the right to protest. The intended court action and its outcome are likely to set the tone for future police action in tackling protests, the intensity of which is bound to increase in line with the issues likely to surface. Resorting to public interest litigation is a potent tool that can be used to effectively counter government excess, and the main Opposition’s intention to take that route is a step in the right direction in proving its democratic credentials.

Using the country’s police force as its plaything is nothing new to Sri Lanka, with successive regimes politically influencing the department to a degree greater than the one before. It is this abject politicisation and resultant degradation of that department that in fact warranted the setting up of independent commissions, including the Police Commission, under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. However, with the castration of the powers of those commissions under the 20th Amendment, it is no secret that politicisation of the Police has reached a zenith with the once highly respected CID seemingly reduced to a political tool to deter dissenters.

It is to the credit of the Modi Government that, despite the immense clout it still wields, it did not succumb to the temptation of using that clout to stifle anti-regime protests, especially by the farmers. In doing so, that administration reinforced the worldview of India being a vibrant democracy that respects the views of all its people. Whether the same can be said of the administration in this country is answered by the confidence deficit manifesting in the form of scarcity of foreign investment as opposed to India, where the queue to invest is a constantly lengthening one. The upshot: Talk alone won’t do; one has to ultimately walk the talk.