On this Republic Day, there is great hope that the extraordinary travails of an arduous year will be overcome. There is also an unmistakable challenge. The coronavirus pandemic, which upended lives and rhythms, caused death and distress and sharpened inequalities will, hopefully, be tamed by the vaccines. Of course, the mass vaccination project, off to a good start, will present complex tasks and demand new skills. The inequalities and vulnerabilities bared and accentuated by the public health emergency will also need to be acknowledged and addressed. But for the republic, another important challenge has been sounded at the capital’s borders, where farmers protesting the Centre’s three farm laws continue to camp in the cold. This is not the first protest, nor the only one in a large and diverse country. Its timing is not the only reason why it must be seen to articulate, on this January 26, the republic’s challenge. The reason why the tractor march on Delhi’s peripheries will be viewed in the same frame as the R-Day spectacle at its heart is not because the former is at odds with the latter, but the opposite — because they both invoke and celebrate the spirit of the republic made of not just government, but also the people, not just the power of the majority, but also the constitutional checks on it. This republican spirit encompasses a precious bundle of individual freedoms and a careful mosaic of safeguards for their protection.
The republican spirit asks that when there is a push back by the people against a law, even a well-intentioned or reformist law, government must pay heed. In the case of the three farm laws, the Narendra Modi government clearly did not listen enough before bringing in the legislation. It then pushed them through Parliament and took too long in initiating a dialogue with those who started protesting against the proposed changes. So long that even its unprecedented decision to put the laws on hold for 18 months has hit a wall — its serial imperviousness has now returned to haunt. But the farmers’ agitation, admirably sober and scrupulously peaceful, is not just an immediate impasse, demanding urgent resolution. It is also a sobering reminder that the government and the entire political establishment must carry with them into the impending Parliament session and beyond.
For the government, this must be a moment to acknowledge the vital distinction between talking to the people and talking down to them, and the importance of doing the former. For the political establishment, which includes parties and leaders across the spectrum who are shunned by a movement that has turned its back to them, this is a time to reach out and also to look within. They will need to win the people’s trust again. For all the actors in this drama, the reconvening of Parliament comes not a day too soon. The House is the most spacious, most apt stage for taking forward the work of the republic.