Tikait’s autumn gambit

Kartikeya Batra | Updated on February 11, 2021

Tough summer ahead for protesting farmers

In economic theory, there is a concept called convexity. We say that production costs are convex when the cost of production of each subsequent unit rises as the overall production level rises.

With the farmer protest having come such a long way, the challenge of maintaining the existing level of momentum may now require even more effort and resolve. This becomes more relevant with Rakesh Tikait recently stating that farmers plan to stay put until at least October 2.

The issues that this campaign might face in the coming months can be divided into two categories. The first relates to the Indian calendar, and as such, includes issues that may be difficult to manipulate either for the government or for the farmers. However, the former may not mind these at all.

The Indian calendar

In a couple of months, a large section of the protesting farmers may want to head back to their villages to harvest the rabi crop. Acknowledging this, Tikait has already told the media that their campaign plans to come up with a “rota” for every village, by which reinforcements shall be regularly called in to replace farmers who leave the protest sites for harvesting. Attrition management will, therefore, become crucial.

Similarly, while winters can be tough when one is out in the open in Northern India, summers can be even more brutal. In fact, braving the winter can be far cheaper than battling the heat, which usually requires expensive air- conditioning equipment, along with constant power supply, something that the government has shown it can withhold easily.

Add to that the fact that after a pandemic-affected year, the Indian Premier League seems all set to return to Indian shores. This has several implications, including a preoccupied (and predisposed) media and a distracted middle-class. In fact, if one may recall, one of the aspects that the Anna Hazare Movement of 2011 was credited for was its immaculate timing. Anna Hazare’s first fast was launched from Jantar Mantar on April 4, 2011, right after India’s World Cup victory and just before the commencement of that year’s IPL.

Political factors at play

The second category relates to political forces and their trajectory over the coming months.

In the upcoming Assembly elections, if the BJP manages to upset the Trinamool Congress in Bengal, retain power in Assam and make some inroads in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the Centre will gain the required political heft to turn more defiant.

Assembly elections scheduled for early 2022 in Uttar Pradesh can further muddy the waters, if political tourism continues at protest sites. In fact, one will not be surprised if Tikait is wooed by the likes of the RLD and the Samajwadi Party, especially given his influence in Western Uttar Pradesh. This could turn into ammunition against Tikait.

The most credible threat to the movement, however, comes from within the movement itself. With Tikait having emerged as the de facto voice and face of the movement over the last couple of weeks, the disparate farmer groups that have congregated around New Delhi might find the task of coordination much trickier than earlier.

In a recent discussion, for instance, Swaraj India and Jai Kisan Andolan leader Avik Saha admitted that Tikait’s specific declaration regarding October 2 was not a consensual call, although he understood the intent and the symbolism behind it. Given Tikait’s history of political ambition and the upcoming elections in his State, one should not be surprised if more such instances of one-upmanship arise in the near future, which could pose a serious risk to the unity and credibility of the movement.

While the economics behind the farm laws can be debated, the political conclusion of this protest is clear to one and all. For the first time, the Modi government is facing a credible protest backed by strong logistical and organisational support. The coming summer, however, is all set to test the movement’s tenacity.

The writer is a PhD Scholar (Economics and Political Economy) at the University of Maryland

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Published on February 11, 2021
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