Farm law repeal: Lessons for Narendra Modi and his government
The worry is that after this decision, the possibility of serious debate among stakeholders and political parties on farms reforms with which they have grappled for years, if not decades, is unlikely to happen in the near future.
“If the deaf are to hear,” Bhagat Singh said during his trial in April 1929, “the sound has to be very loud.”
Ironically, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi confessed that “there must have been some deficiency in our efforts, due to which we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to some farmers,” the sounds emanating from farmers’ protest sites around Delhi were no longer thunderous like they once were some months ago.
The government’s action also was not the hallmark of a hearing-impaired and sightless regime. Instead, it is that of people who realised that the tide was turning against them and damage control steps were post-haste required.
The moot point is if this evasive action is way too late for polls in five states early next year. Given that barely forty days remain before 2021 fades into history and just another month thereafter that campaigning will gather momentum, will this action not be seen as ‘victory’ by alienated communities, and then have them asking for more of the same? Will not the issue of MSP as legal right gain wider currency now?
By all accounts, there is a genuine case for addressing issues that stagnate the farm sector and impact the lives of people engaged in it. With reforms required, the impasse from which Modi has now tried to extricate his government belatedly was not over the nature of the legislation, but on the manner in which it was pushed through and that too in the middle of a crippling pandemic.
The worry is that after this decision, the possibility of serious debate among stake-holders and political parties on this issue with which they have grappled for years, if not decades, is unlikely to happen in the near future. Farm reforms certainly are not going to be on the agenda of anyone in the run-up to 2024.
Even future governments, whichever party (or parties) forms it, shall refrain from immediately venturing into reforming the agricultural sector after having witnessed how it singed the Modi government. As a ploy, Modi’s announcement may get the party’s electoral march back on track, but even he would be wary of touching this issue for a long time to come
The net loser is thus the sector and its state-holders but the nation would also have to bear its cost. When blame has to be apportioned for the stagnation in agriculture, the finger will be pointed in this government’s direction and given the centralised style of functioning, Modi will not be able to evade responsibility
Modi’s announcement that caught even the protestors by surprise, although its indications were visible since Amarinder Singh’s parleys with the BJP and the tragic episode in Lakhimpur Kheri, is however uncharacteristic of Modi. He has the image of being a no-rollback leader, although he has taken back numerous decisions from 2014 onwards on issues as diverse as drug policy, to EPF rate slash to railway fare hikes, and of course withdrawal of the Land Acquisition Act in 2015.
Yet, consciously, in an attempt to continue propagating the 56 inches macho and the image of the Prime Minister as a strongman, he and his publicists created the image of him being one who took decisions that required no re-examination. That is a characteristic peculiar to populists, they start believing and promoting an image of theirs which is at variance with the actual self.
This trait of Modi and his associates became more pronounced after getting re-elected in 2019 with an enhanced verdict. If one looks back, the fundamental error the BJP made was similar to that of several leaders who governed India previously, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv notably. The mistake being that of considering their parliamentary strength to be the exact extent of popular support. In a first past the post system, this is one of traps that those who win mandates can fall into.
The ease with which ideological objectives were realised after the May 2019 verdict by strategic use of the party’s parliamentary majority and bewilderment in Opposition ranks, made Modi and his aides over-estimate their capacity. It resulted in unnecessary hubris and there was little need to remorselessly push through the farm laws on which there were divisions even within his own ideological fraternity — recall for instance the words of caution of former Sahsarkaryavaha, Bhaiyyaji Joshi.
For reasons best known to them, the BJP leadership began seeing the laws as more politically important to continue in existence than they actually were. Looking back, one is sure many in the party would be weighing in with the argument that there was no necessity to convert the farm laws into a prestige issue and mount a vicious attack on not just protestors from the civil society, but also pan the entire Sikh community as Khalistani separatists. Key individuals in the government may have realised the perils of the Sikh sense of identity being targeted as seditious, but this state should not have been allowed to continue for long.
Likewise, rising superciliousness and constant disparagement of critics within the party was appreciated and even rewarded within the party. The leadership did not realise that this constant state of exuberance was fraught with the danger of spinning out of control. This is precisely what happened in Lakhimpur Kheri when the son of a Union minister got intoxicated with power and imagined that the arm of law would not ever touch him.
To ensure that his regime gets back on track and wins back those socio-economic groups which have drifted away, the government has to tackle contentious issues with a democratic spirit. To this, as far as legislative measures go, the government must once again opt for the Committee route and have wider discussions before introducing laws. More than actually doing it, the government must be seen to be seeking unanimity.
There must be realisation that the power at their command is not that of the 300 plus seats in the Lok Sabha, but is actually less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. Discovering a humane touch would possibly be the best service that Modi can do for his regime in the run-up to 2024 even while continuing efforts to restore balance in the short run for the immediate objective of smooth sailing the impending polls.
The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. Views expressed are personal.