Protesting farmers sit along a blocked highway at the Ghazipur Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in New Delhi. Photo: Money Sharma / AFP

Farmers in India have been protesting for more than 80 days now on Delhi’s borders against three laws recently passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. However, given the response of the government in Parliament last week, there is little hope that the farmers will be able to go home any time soon.

If anything, indications are that the government is unconcerned about the protests and will continue with its agricultural policies or, as it likes to call them, “reforms.”

Contrary to popular belief that the government is being pushed into a corner by the farmers, actually it may have been emboldened to impose even more agricultural-sector reforms in coming years based on free-market ideology. The days of state protection to the agriculture sector seem to be over.

Prior to these laws, there was constant fear among India’s policymakers of farmer’s reaction to opening up agriculture to market and corporate forces. But with these laws, that fear is gone for good. As shown last week in Parliament, the Modi government has come out in the open in defense of these laws.

Despite huge protests, the government has not only held its ground but has also managed to face the farmers’ wrath successfully. It is in no mood to relent and look weak. Too much is at stake here. Some government officials are already smelling victory.

There may be many reasons for this optimism in government camp. Currently farmers are too focused on protests against the government and paying very little attention to silent work being done by the government to implement these laws.

Smooth development of the countryside infrastructure is the key to implementing these “reforms.” The government’s biggest fear of facing farmers hostile to construction activities in the countryside seems to have gone away. Instead, the farmers have become preoccupied in Delhi.

This is encouraging the government to continue with its construction activities in the countryside. Corporations also can continue with their development projects. With rural areas calm, big business may not be afraid of investing in the agriculture sector any more.

These three farm laws against which farmers are protesting are logical products of the economic system India is currently following. India started opening up its economy a long time ago, so this was bound to happen one day or the other.

Modi, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and corporates may not be alone in this, as the leadership of farmers’ unions likes to believe. There is big army of bureaucrats and academics behind these laws who strongly believe opening the traditional agriculture sector to corporates is the only way forward to solve India’s mass poverty problem and modernize the rural economy.

So forcing the Modi government to repeal these laws may not solve all the problems Indian farmers are facing. Convincing these hardcore bureaucrats and academics will be the real task and will require much more than protests on Delhi’s borders. And remember, this big army of bureaucrats and academics does not fear elections.

Thus the farmers who are looking for quick results must understand that a political call has been made. The BJP and Modi are ready to risk everything for these “reforms.” There is no going back on these laws. From the statements given by senior BJP leaders recently it seems the ruling party is preparing for a fight to the finish. There are no signs of the BJP relenting to farmers’ demands any time soon.

Despite the big uproar against these three laws, it will be difficult to convince Modi that the path he has taken for the country leads directly to hell. This is because the side effects of the kind of growth model currently being promoted in India, be it on the institution of the family and lower birth rates, hurting the environment and the climate, destruction of culture and spiritual values and weakening of constitutional democracy and rule of law will only start appearing after three to four decades.

Three to four decades is a long time in politics, too far in the future for Modi to worry about. His focus is on high growth rates and wealth generation now to keep his grip on power. Who cares what will happen in 30 years? It is a headache for the next generation of Indian leadership.

Even after their huge success in attracting international sympathy through their protests, the farmers are nowhere near achieving their goals. Why? Because of the narrow focus of their protests. They are focused only on repealing these three laws and gaining a legal guarantee of the minimum support price (MSP).

Somehow, they have convinced themselves that repealing these laws is enough to protect their interests. They have failed to understand that laws like these will keep coming as long as the current corporate-led growth model prevails, even though future laws may be more tightly wrapped and hidden behind farmer-friendly terms and clauses to avoid detection of their real intent.

Furthermore, the farmers have failed to connect their protests with wider sections of Indian society who are also suffering from pro-market polices. They seem to simply not to care about the rest of the economic policies of the government that are hurting other sections of Indian society.

As far as they are concerned, those other policies can continue as long as their own problems are addressed. This narrow approach is going to hurt the farmers deeply in the future.

Is it possible for the government to accept the farmers’ demands while also continuing with the current free-market-based growth model? The logical answer is no. It cannot keep its cake and eat it too.

If government stops these laws midway, the whole development process will be affected. These laws are part of a developmental chain. Everything is connected with everything else.

The government cannot keep the agriculture sector under the old state protection and socialist system while opening the rest of the economy to a free-market and capitalist system. That would create serious disjoints among the different sectors of the economy. The farmers need to understand this crucial connection among the different sectors of the economy.

The time is coming when the farmers will have to give up their narrow approach of asking the government to repeal these laws only. They will have to begin looking at the big picture and start advocating a new “people-centered” growth model where every part of the Indian economy is properly joined and work together in proper rhythm.

The current corporate-led growth model has failed to work, as the gap between the rich and poor is increasing by the day. And farmers can no longer see their own problems in isolation.

To build a new sustainable economic model that can work for everyone, core values such as constitutional democracy and rule of law; protection and promotion of the institution of the family; safeguarding of traditional Indian cultural and spiritual values; and protection of the environment and climate as precious must inform India’s farmers.

The current corporate-led growth model is threatening these core values and thus losing the support of the younger generation, who are seeing with their own eyes what happens when these core values are violated. Getting and keeping the support of the younger generation is key to winning this battle.

India must protect its values from the onslaughts of market forces. This is the biggest challenge of our times. Farmers have to lead this battle from the front, as their traditional and rural agriculture-based lifecycle is based on these values.

Once market forces are allowed to destroy these values, there is no way farmers can continue with their traditional social and economic life. Thus their narrow focus on three farm laws and MSP may be misplaced.

Even though the Indian leadership is looking at China’s and other East Asian countries’ marvelous growth stories to implement its own reforms, it is refusing to accept the negative side effects that have started appearing in those growth models.

The Indian government paid little attention to these side effects while drafting these farm laws. But Indian policymakers simply cannot ignore the important lessons and critical questions emerging from these countries.

China is the only country in the world that has a huge population comparable to India’s. Currently it is moving its farmers from villages to cities to work as cheap labor. India can learn from the Chinese experience.

For example, it can learn what it costs (in every sense of the term) to move people from villages to cities; what it means to provide (import) food for millions of people day after day; what it means to build new homes for millions of people; what it means to keep people peacefully together in a new location with a new identity; and what it means to provide new employment to millions of people.

Indian farm leadership also should inform its strategy and policies on experiences from these newly developed countries. Case studies from these countries could be powerful tools to combat the Indian government’s pro-free-market policies. The damage such policies have done in these countries cannot be ignored by anyone any more.

Given the hard stand taken by the Modi government, the options before the farmers are very limited. Going forward, farmers will need a fully thought-out strategy and plan of action.

To begin with, the farmers must accept the ground reality that a political call has been made. The BJP is ready to risk everything. They must accept and factor this fact into their future strategy.

They may keep up the protest on Delhi’s borders but must not make the mistake of over-expanding it. They have to control their temptation to look big. The focus should remain on the long-term sustainability of the protest rather than its size. Remember, the next parliamentary elections are too far in the future for the BJP to feel any political pressure to settle this fight quickly.

So far the farmers have been making their own strategy and policies. However, the situation has changed. The government has taken a tough stand and is ready to throw everything into the fight.

The farmers should try to involve and give more space to pro-farmer bureaucrats and academics to understand the complexities of the issues involved. Farmers’ future policy and strategy must benefit from wise and informed counsel.

The days of low-hanging fruit are over. Future debate is going to be more focused on specific issues. A well-funded and big and powerful corporate lobby is expected to attack farmers from every possible direction.  Thus the farmers had better be prepared.

Keeping political neutrality works well but it may not be enough as the fight goes to the next stage. Increasing political pressure on the BJP both from within the party and from without may be needed.

The time to play hardball is coming.

Lakhvinder Singh

Lakhvinder Singh is director of peace and security studies at the Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea.