Achche din no more: BJP will lose aam aadmi with Land Acquisition Bill

After the suit, the bill. The controversy over the Land Acquisition Bill is threatening to reinforce the image that evolved with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pinstriped suit: that the NDA government represents the rich and is against the poor.

Even if the NDA government manages to get the bill passed in a joint session of the Parliament, the damage is already done. The growing opposition combined with the rift within its own ranks has ensured the Modi government’s loss in the battle of perception over the bill.

The government could have walked away without too much harm if the protests were limited to the Congress and regional parties that traditionally oppose it. But now that the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal have also raised their voice against the bill, and Anna is camping at Jantar Mantar, the Modi government will find it difficult to explain why it is in such a hurry to enact an ‘anti-farmer’ law.

It is apparent that Modi is keen to kick-start reforms, create the right kind of environment for investment and remove impediments that delay projects. Restrictions on buying land are holding up projects worth nearly Rs. 20 lakh crore and the industry is impatient for clearances. So, there may be some merits in the law it has proposed and Modi may indeed be following a long-term plan for growth.

Narendra Modi. AFP.

Narendra Modi. AFP.

But promulgating an ordinance in haste has cast a shadow over the BJP’s intentions. It has also been put in an awkward situation where even if it makes the right changes, it will be seen as a climb down. It has unnecessarily given the Opposition an issue. The land act needed changes. But what the NDA’s ordinance proposed was a lot of subterfuge — it reeked of the same casualness that had destroyed the UPA’s credibility.

But just as the Congress was blindsided by who its imagined constituency was, the BJP was blindsided by the thought that it needed to send swift signals to investors. Not a bad thought. But the government forgot that, in the final analysis, it will be judged by its ability to manage social contradictions: it needed to do the political hard work of building a broad social coalition,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express.

The government took the easier route of putting legislation ahead of consensus. “We are being seen as pro-industry and anti-farmer. But this is not the case, our first challenge is to change this perception,” said a senior BJP leader who is part of the eight-member committee that will seek suggestions from farmers on the bill.

In politics, perception matters a lot. Sometimes facts get ignored in the din of political charges and counter-charges and real intentions get mired in rumours and half-truths. What matters in the end is what the people think of a government decision or a political controversy.

In 1977, Indira Gandhi suffered because of the noise around ‘forced sterilization’; in 1989 Rajiv Gandhi became a victim of the ‘Bofors controversy’; and the Congress has perennially been on the backfoot for being as a party that appeases minorities.

But the Delhi election has made it clear that a new fault line is threatening to decide the future of Indian polity: the struggle between haves and have-nots. The BJP’s resounding loss in the Delhi verdict has clearly shown that the BJP is perceived to be on the wrong side of this social and economic divide. If it fails to manage the outrage over the land bill, the Modi government would find itself once again in the wrong camp.

Make no mistake; the feeling on the ground is completely against the controversial bill. Farmers are completely against forceful acquisition of their land since it has long-term social and economic ramifications. Apart from the loss of livelihood, the affected farmer also faces the pain of being uprooted from his social moorings.

It is also a fallacy that farmers get adequately compensated for their land. Though the bill guarantees that the compensation would be 2-4 times the prevailing market rate, the process is deeply flawed. First, there is very little transparency in fixing the market rate; it is mostly left to the acquisition officer’s discretion and is much lower than the actual cost of the land. And two, land titles are seldom clear in rural areas villages and many holders fail to produce the required legal documents while claiming compensation.

Incidentally, this is not the right time to needle farmers. In large swathes of northern India, in many districts of Haryana and Rajasthan bordering Delhi, farmers are sitting on a bumper harvest of unsold guar, whose price has crashed to around Rs 3500 per quintal from its peak of Rs 30,000 just a few years ago. Anger and desperation are already rife; the BJP is taking the risk of adding to the gloom and doom.

Whatever be the fate of the bill, there would just be one loser in the Modi vs Others.

Perhaps, like the suit, farmers too would have been happier if the land were to be auctioned to the highest bidder.

Published Date: Feb 25, 2015 03:51 pm | Updated Date: Feb 25, 2015 03:52 pm

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