The efficacy and delicacy of Gurudwara diplomacy

PM Modi’s opponents allege ‘politics’ behind his visit to Gurudwara Rakabganj and slam the move as appeasement which, they say, will backfire as farmers continue to remain upset over the new farm bills

In Indian politics, comparisons are a norm, a common one being Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Indira Gandhi. When one talks of dictatorial tendencies it is said that Modi matches upto the former Prime Minister; when one mentions being first among equals, it is about both of them; when one speaks of being intolerant of one’s critics both are in the dock. Even when one speaks of the dreaded Emergency, a blot on Mrs Gandhi’s political career, there is a comparison: it is said that Mrs Gandhi officially imposed the Emergency while Modi practices one that is undeclared resulting in his government denigrating institutions and pushing laws.

Emergency is not the only crime that Mrs Gandhi committed. There is yet another considered unforgivable as far as the Sikh psyche goes: Operation Bluestar when she ordered the Army to march into the Golden Temple: a decision for which she paid for, with her life.

Like the Muslims who will never forgive the BJP for the demolition of Babri Masjid, the Sikhs will always see Indira Gandhi as the villain who desecrated their sanctum sanctorum. Indira Gandhi never did apologize for the transgression. She flagged it to be a decision which was a necessity. The Sikh sentiment was irreparably hurt.

On this count, Modi has bettered Indira Gandhi. He administered a blow but made amends to woo the community.

On a quiet Sunday morning, he visited a gurudwara in the capital city of New Delhi and paid obeisance. It was a surprise visit but it was one that got everyone talking.

The occasion read a pretext: to mark the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur.

The intent, read politics: to send a positive message to the Sikh community that Modi stands with them.

Modi played his cards well. He wore appropriate colours and said the right things.

For starters, Modi wore saffron: kurta, jacket and headgear. BJP apart, the colour saffron is associated with the Sikhs. The Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Sikh religion, is saffron.

Striking the right note, Modi invoked the Sikh Guru and said it was a “special kripa”, benevolence, of the “Guru sahibs” that their 400th prakash parv, lights festival, was being observed during the tenure of his government.

Modi’s gurudwara diplomacy sure resonated with average Sikhs: many posed for pictures with him and there was bonhomie.

Modi’s gurdwara visit comes at a time when the farmers, mostly Sikhs, are up in arms against the government. Hence the outreach and its politics can neither be ignored nor overlooked. Critics have slammed the move as appeasement which, they say, will backfire.

However, what remained etched in memory that Sunday morning was a sermon, read by a granthi, a ceremonial reader, during Modi’s visit. If reports are to be believed it went something like this: “You may be a religious person, attend satsangs, prayer meets, and do Seva, service, but there must be changes in your thinking that truly help better society”. The sermon, or Shabad as it is known, was being recited in the background and is customary to a gurudwara.

In the context of the ongoing agitation of the farmers, the irony of the sermon cannot be missed. Juxtapose it to Modi’s gurudwara visit and it would translate to gurudwara diplomacy coming to a naught if his or his government’s thinking remains static. The change, the Shabad advocates, is what the agitating farmers are demanding and the Modi Government is resisting. Critics seized the opportunity to dub this as a signal from the Gods.

Irrespective, the Modi government is under extreme pressure from the farmers to repeal the three farm laws that were enacted in September.

The new laws, hailed by the government as reformative, allow businesses to freely trade farm produce outside the mandi system; permit private traders to stock large quantities of essential commodities for future sale and lay down new rules for contract farming. Contrary to the perception they do not remove the guaranteed minimum price which as per government assurance and commitment, remains intact. What they do is allow businesses to bypass markets and strike direct deals. They also remove restrictions on corporations buying land.

Farm laws apart, there is visible anger against the new ordinance on stubble burning which makes it an offence punishable with imprisonment and fine: maximum of 5 years and rupees one crore respectively.

The farmers are up in arms alleging that the government has shortchanged them. In a Dilli Chalo, head for Delhi, movement, thousands of farmers converged on the borders laying a virtual siege to protest against the new laws. They blocked key entry points demanding that the laws be repealed.

Slamming the government’s claim of new laws empowering farmers, there is an apprehension of a take-over by big corporations which are largely profit-driven. Add to this the fear that the government may, ultimately, do away with the minimum support price or the MSP regime. Hence the demand for a legal guarantee by the Government that the protective cover for the farmers will remain for all times to come and they will neither be at the mercy of private players nor bereft of their bargaining power.

The Government’s assurance that the MSP will stay has not cut ice.

It is pertinent to point out that despite the MSP being around for decades, it finds no mention in any law. The Government declares it at the beginning of a sowing season even when it is not legally obliged to. Therefore, for the farmers to now demand a legal clause is somewhat out of context. As things stand, the government is not taking away anything but the farmers are demanding what never was.

It is at this point that one must stop and examine the stand-off between the farmers and the government. The talks have reached a dead end with the farmers hardening their stance every time the Government extends an olive branch. The this or nothing approach of the protestors may prove to be counter-productive. The Government could resort to a tire them out strategy and wait for them to run out of steam. Whether it would succeed remains to be seen but it is a battle of nerves: who will blink the first kind of situation.

It is no one’s case to make the farmers vulnerable or strip them of the protective gear that the Government or mandis provide. But there sure is a case for negotiations of reasonable demands. Repealing the laws is not an option for any government: it should not be because it would open floodgates and set dangerous precedents every time new laws or legislations are introduced. Therefore, on this count, the farmers are on a sticky wicket.

Having said that it needs to be seen why the farmers are demanding the impossible and steering the talks to a dead end. For one, politics is playing out with BJP detractors fanning the agitation. Opposition parties have come out in support because they want to paint the Government black. The farmers agitation comes handy.

CAA protestors too wanted to join in but the Police thwarted the attempt. Activist Bilkis Bano headed for the Singhu-Delhi-Haryana border but was, reportedly, detained. Popular as Shaheen Bagh dadi, the 82-year-old was the face of anti-CAA protests in Delhi earlier this year.

To add fuel to the fire, reports of pro-Khalistan slogans being raised at the protest site, led the BJP to allege that the agitation had been hijacked by anti-national elements.

None of this, however, dilutes the overriding sentiment of the farmers. There is a trust deficit between the governing and the governed. Therefore, however sincere the BJP may try to sound on the issue of farmer welfare, its intentions remain suspect.

If the past is anything to go by, there are several instances that substantiate that BJP words do not match its actions.

Top of the mind is Modi’s promise of every Indian getting 15 lakh in their bank account after black money stashed abroad is brought back and his protégé Amit Shah, later dismissing it as “jumla” idiom. Or the job creation and achche din, good days, a promise that stares hard at the Modi government.

Pitch these against the government’s claim that farm-reforms are welfare driven and everyone sees red. Assurances ring hollow and there is a lurking fear that there is more than meets the eye. Add to that BJP’s bending over backwards to favour corporates and the farmers insecurity multiplies by the minute. Therefore, however much the BJP government may rework the clauses or appear to address the concerns of the farmers, it fails to win their confidence. The distrust stems from the fact that irrespective of what the Government says the farm laws would, in the long run, be the albatross around the neck of the farmers.

The fears may be exaggerated but they are certainly not unsubstantiated. The hurry with which the BJP has pushed the reforms without wider consultations raises questions. If it did consult farmers as it claims, it probably did not from across the spectrum to factor in all points of view and overriding concerns before framing the laws. That the farmers took to the streets is enough evidence that the Government has faltered. Even if its intentions were good, the implementation leaves much to be desired.

Having said that there is little substance in the anti-BJP parties crying hoarse. Their contention that they should be on board rings hollow in the face of their agenda of blocking every legislation that the BJP brings to Parliament. Letting the Government succeed means sounding a death knell for the Opposition. Therefore, it makes little political sense to support the BJP even on good laws and reforms. Hence the consensus chorus that the Opposition continues to sing is somewhat a hoax.

For the Government, it is a tight rope walk: a damned if you do and damned if you don’t kind of a situation. Therefore, it needs to act judiciously and follow the principle of giving more than it appears to take away. The farmers, on their part, must also tread cautiously and accept that in the battle of unequal they could soon be on the backfoot.