Farmer protesters hoisted flags at the top of the dome on the Red Fort, New Delhi, January 26, 2021. Photo: Getty

MUMBAI – The deterioration of two-month-long peaceful protests outside Delhi by as many as 100,000 farmers into lawless rioting and violent clashes on India’s Republic Day could hit India’s efforts to attract investment, create new jobs and generally improve the economic environment.

Some commentators have described the riot as India’s “Capitol Hill moment” as protestors invaded the historic Red Fort and installed flags representing farmers and Sikhism in the place of the national flag on January 26.

The Red Fort is considered sacrosanct in India and used for independence day addresses to the nation by prime ministers. Rioting, tear-gas blasts, caning and violent jostling left hundreds of farmers and more than 300 policemen injured. Farmers across 20 states also held protests against the three farm laws at the heart of the conflict.

Farmers declared they will next march on parliament on February 1, when the government presents the national budget containing fresh tax proposals, incentives and welfare programs for the coming year.

The Republic Day mayhem is unlikely to send an encouraging message to investors. While top local bankers and businessmen maintained a diplomatic silence, politicians from opposition parties were critical of the government’s handling of the situation, coming just days before the parliament resumes for its scheduled Budget session beginning Friday.

“This is the failure of the government to have not resolved the issue sooner, allowed it to fester for months and despite having constant inputs from various agencies about how things could go out of control, not been prepared with adequate measures to stop this,’’ commented Priyanka Chaturvedi, a member of the upper house of parliament.

Farmers gather in front of the historic Red Fort during a protest against farm laws introduced by the government, in Delhi, India, January 26, 2021. Photo: Twitter

Political analysts say opposition parties will try to hit the government on several other issues hitherto ignored, including the Chinese occupation of parts of Ladakh, perceived poor handling of the economy, and Covid-19.

The government had used Covid-19 as an excuse not to hold the winter session of the parliament in November and December. Observers saw it as the government’s way of slipping out of addressing farmer’s issues.

Farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand and Rajasthan have been braving winter rains, hail and gale while pitching their beds under tractor-trailers for about 65 days.

In several cases, wives and daughters also joined the men in protesting against three farm laws the government initially stealthily passed on June 5 as an ordinance and later rushed them through parliament ignoring requests of scores of members to refer the bills for review to a select committee.

“No one can support the violence in Delhi but the central government should be held responsible for the same,’’ prominent long-time politician Sharad Pawar told reporters. “The farm bill should have been sent to a select committee of parliament. Instead, it was hurriedly passed. I knew this would take a bad turn as farmers would react. ‘’

Pawar was India’s agriculture minister under Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, and thrice the chief minister of Maharashtra, India’s most industrialized state.

“The central government should at least now shed stubbornness during talks,’’ said Pawar. “A solution has to be found for their legitimate demands. The Modi government should not take steps that could lead to destabilization of Punjab again.’’

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the celebrations after the victory in Bihar assembly election and by-election in other states at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi on November 11, 2020. Photo by Prakash Singh/AFP

Punjab, on the border with hostile neighbor Pakistan, was a hotbed for terrorist activity for more than a decade in the 1980s. Besides being an agriculture-focused state, it also sends a large number of youths to India’s security forces.  

Farmers say they will hold their ground for as long as it takes to repeal the new laws. They fear the laws will increase their risk and susceptibility to corporate middlemen manipulating prices and acquiring their land without legal protection under the new laws.

The government has not been able to dispel their concerns. About two-thirds of India’s 1.38 billion population depend directly or indirectly on land and have a rural connection.

India has been trying to attract global investors to set up manufacturing plants and sharply cut corporate taxes in mid-2019 in that pursuit. The government and others often tout India’s democracy, robust legal system, respect for human rights and youthful demographics to coax investors away from neighbouring countries including China.

“What the Indian farmers are saying is they don’t want the reforms that were done in their name without consulting them,’’ commented Kaushik Basu, a former India chief economic adviser. “To disregard their demand is to damage democracy. Surely they have the right to protest.’’

India desperately needs steady economic growth to regenerate millions of jobs lost during a draconian lockdown to contain Covid-19 from March last year. It also requires fresh investment to pull itself out of -7.5% economic contraction in the year ending March 31.