The vandalism of over 1500 Jio telecom towers with more than 25 of them being physically damaged, over the last one week in Punjab has cast a shadow on what was till then a peaceful agitation by farmers from the region. It seems unlikely that such large-scale damage could have been inflicted from just spontaneous overreactions. Clearly, there appears to have been systematic targeting of Reliance even earlier in the agitation with the now-familiar Ambani-Adani combo even inspiring songs to be composed against them by the farmer groups.
While the vilification of these two large groups is not new ever since the Modi Government took office as it is seen to be extending favours to them, it should alarm the business houses themselves that their perceived proximity to the government with its attendant spin-offs is starting to evoke so much anger among the masses.
Vandalism of any kind damages business and investor sentiment and Punjab like most other states needs every penny it can attract. Generally viewed as an investor-friendly state the recent incidents have done no good at all to the image of the largely (in recent times) peaceful state.
Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh issued a warning to the agitating farmers that anyone who damaged property would be severely dealt with but by then plenty of towers had already lost their connectivity. Social media videos of diesel generator set being damaged and mobile towers being broken also tarnished the farmers' agitation and gave credence to the conspiracy theorists that the protest had been infiltrated by those whose agenda may not have been entirely peaceful.
The damage to mobile infrastructure has far greater consequences at a time like this where the dependence on connectivity for everything from education to financial transactions is much higher than the pre-pandemic days. Vandalism of telecom towers hits children doing their online studies, small traders trying to do their bank transactions and so many others for whom today the mobile is a lifeline. And the irony is that the mobile revolution has been heralded by the same “big business" that is being vilified.
Farmer leaders have also called for an end to the vandalism and lawlessness but thus far their appeals have had a limited impact.
With talks hopefully set to resume between the union government and farmer groups, New Delhi slowly appears to be gaining the upper hand. Support from farmers beyond Punjab and Haryana has not been on the scale expected and this may have emboldened the Modi government to enter a battle of attrition to see if they can tire out the protestors, parked as they are on the roads in the biting cold.
Also, the government stands to seriously lose credibility if it agrees to repeal the farm laws. It does seem that some kind of face-saver in the form of concessions will need to be offered to the farmers to get them to call off the agitation. It also appears that this may be the government’s plan. In any case, remember that the government had already offered an assurance to the farmers that the minimum support price system will continue.
Beyond all this though is the painting of big business houses as villains. Ambani and Adani may be the targets today but the general suspicion of the "suited booted men" and the Sarkar that is thought to run primarily for their welfare has run deep for decades.
The government needs to be more sensitive to the public perception of it being close to just a few corporate groups. This is believed to be causing unease even within BJP circles. At the same time, it must make it clear that it supports and welcomes big business so long as they operate within the rules. It needs to reach out to the public and explain that it is such large groups with their large investments that can help transform India faster. But successive loan write-offs of humungous amounts of corporate debt has left it with a daunting task of convincing a largely sceptical public that it is not indulging in cronyism despite passing laws such as the insolvency and bankruptcy code that precisely attack this problem.
Vandalism must be handled with an iron hand. However just be the cause, farmers or anyone else cannot be allowed to damage property, public or private. For too long India has been sold the same story by most political parties of their standing up for the aam aadmi against the big bad moneybags though in reality, they have done the opposite. It is time to change the script. India needs as much investment as is possible as quickly as it can get it as that is the only way of creating jobs and giving the youth an opportunity to dream of a better future. Driving away investors with acts of violence is the surest way to keep India poor.
Disclosure: Reliance Industries Ltd. is the sole beneficiary of Independent Media Trust which controls Network18 Media & Investments Ltd. Sumanth Raman (The author is a Chennai-based television anchor and political analyst. Views are personal.)