The Supreme Court's decision to stay the three controversial farm laws and form a four-member committee to "take discussions forward" is an important turning point in the confrontation between the Centre and protesting farmers.
There are five aspects to this:
1. Partial Victory for Farmers' Protest
On one hand, the SC's decision to stay the three laws is a victory for the protesting farmers as it at least provides a temporary reprieve from the farm laws.
Legal challenges to at least two other government legislations – the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act – didn't get even this concession.
The total lockdown and mass arrests of political leaders and workers prevented large-scale protests in Kashmir.
While the CAA sparked a large-scale protest, there are important differences on why no concessions were given to it, unlike the farm laws.
For the Narendra Modi government, the CAA is an ideological issue and appealed to their core Hindutva base.
Except, in Assam and other parts of the Northeast, the BJP didn't have much to lose by adopting a hardline position on the anti-CAA protests. Even in these states, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 'managed' the protests by clamping down on one section of protesters while giving some concessions to others.
While the protests led by Muslims in rest of India did rattle the BJP, they got away with a harsh crackdown that resulted in the deaths of several protesters. This is only because it had nothing to lose politically as Muslims didn’t vote for it any way. Also, the protests had to be terminated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The farmers' protest, on the other hand, isn't an ideological issue for the BJP and came with a greater political cost.
The BJP has already lost two allies – Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and Rashtriya Loktantrik Party in Rajasthan.
Its government in Haryana, particularly ally the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), is facing a massive pushback on the ground. The results of the recent urban local body polls in Haryana also bear testimony to how the farmers' protest is harming the BJP.
In Punjab, the situation is even worse as BJP functionaries have been resigning in dozens and those remaining are finding it difficult even to perform even basic political activities in the state, which goes to polls in a year's time.
With farmers from Uttarkahand, Western Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, among other states joining the protests, the potential political cost could increase for the BJP if the protests intensify.
The differences between the protests are also important from the point of view of the Supreme Court, which seems to have witnessed both the anti-CAA protests as well as the farmers’ protest from the perspective of law and order and blocking of roads.
Here, the termination of the protests due to COVID-19 may have also reduced pressure on the SC to act on the matter.
2. Sustaining the Protests
However, the stay is the only positive aspect for farmers. Neither did the court make any comment on the challenge to the constitutional validity of the three farm laws, nor did it comment on the manner in which the laws were passed.
Also, all four members of the committee appointed by the SC have supported farm laws in the past and oppose their repeal. So, the core demand of the protesting farmers – that the law should be repealed – is unlikely to find any resonance in the committee.
The road ahead now becomes tricky for farmers, as they will be faced with the challenge of sustaining the protests for a longer time, until the committee submits its report and the SC removes the stay on the laws.
In all likelihood, the farmers will intensify their protests, with the 26 January tractor parade being the first major step towards this.
3. Centre's Calculation
The Centre would hope that the committee would carry out its work at least for a few months.
A major milestone here would be April when the Rabi harvest would be ready and many of the protesting farmers would need to go back to their fields.
The Centre would also hope that the support for protests outside Punjab and Haryana would dissipate, since Minimum Support Price (MSP) isn't such an issue for farmers from other states where the Mandi system isn't as central.
This would reduce the political cost of the protests for the BJP.
4. National Security Card
On 12 January, Attorney General KK Venugopal said that the protests have been “infiltrated by Khalistanis”. He also said that the government will be submitting an affidavit in court to that effect, including inputs from the Intelligence Bureau. This indicates that the government may try to play the national security card to delegitimise the protest and project it as "anti-national".
The aim would be to isolate protesters from Punjab as well as prepare the background for a crackdown on them.
5. Opposition's Role
Since a great deal boils down to the political cost of the protest to the BJP, the same is expected when it comes to how the Opposition parties play their cards. Till now, the Opposition hasn't done much to leverage the protests against the BJP – the reason they have gotten away by not backing down on the farm laws. This is unlike the Land Acquisition Ordinance in 2014, against which the Opposition and farmers' groups raised their voices effectively, forcing the Modi government to back down.
On the farm laws, the only partial exception has been the Congress led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Deepender Hooda in Haryana, who have been raising farmers' concerns and have inflicted losses on the BJP-JJP in the Baroda bypoll and urban local body polls. In Punjab, the situation is different as the BJP doesn't really have a sizable presence to suffer a major loss.
The Opposition parties would need to leverage the issue much more, especially in agrarian states like Madhya Pradesh, to make it politically difficult for the BJP.
Until that happens, the entire burden of carrying these protests forward, tackling government's machinations and withstanding fatigue, would be on the farmers' unions.
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