Repeal of farm laws: A lesson learnt too late

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

The Modi government's announcement of its intention to repeal the three controversial farm laws sent shock waves through Indian politics on Friday. An administration that had rushed legislation through Parliament, using its brute majority to stifle disagreement, and then stubbornly resisted all criticism of its laws, even in the face of a major farmers’ agitation that besieged the national capital, had suddenly turned tail – reversing course for the first time on any issue.

At one level, the reason for the government’s retreat is obviously political. Three of the five states expected to go to the polls in February-March – Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and to a lesser extent Uttarakhand – have been deeply affected by the agitation on the farm laws, and the ruling party realised it was in grave difficulty as farmers and civil society mobilised against them en masse. The political imperative to stop the haemorrhage of voters from the BJP dictated the move. Some believe it could yet save the day in the latter two states, where the BJP hopes it will help neutralise widespread anti-incumbency.

There may also be a strategic calculation with regard to Punjab’s Sikh farmers, a constituency PM Modi particularly targeted by his recent visits to gurudwaras and by making the announcement on the most sacred day in the Sikh calendar, Gurparab, Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary. Many had expressed concern that the alienation of Sikhs, and the foolish attempts by ruling party apologists to demonise them as “Khalistanis”, could help revive the ashes of the old separatist movement, with which Pakistan has been seeking to stir up trouble through its sponsorship of Sikh militancy abroad. This may help heal the breach, especially with the Punjab elections looming.

Some saw in the Prime Minister’s statement a belated admission of error. But that is excessively generous to an administration that had attacked, arrested, and vilified the farmers, restricting their entry into Delhi and describing them as dupes, knaves and anti-nationals. The nation has not yet recovered from the brutal mowing down of four farmers by a Union Minister’s carcade during a recent farmers’ protest.

Earlier attempts to make up for the government’s earlier failure to consult farmers – including promising to increase farm subsidies and minimum support prices for crops, plus re-opening the Kartarpur corridor to a holy Sikh temple just across the border in Pakistan – failed to adequately reverse the damage done by its legislative haste in Parliament, using its brute majority to stifle disagreement, its imperiousness in dealing with farm unions and continued stubborn inflexibility. In the end, repeal was the only way out to prevent irreversible political damage.

The Prime Minister’s apology to the nation for his failure to convince farmers that the laws were in their interest comes at a time when the government has been faltering on all fronts. India is a price-sensitive country, and inflation has been rising steadily, in no small part because of the government’s extortionate taxes of fuel, which has had a knock-on effect on other commodities. Unemployment is at the highes levels ever recorded. Economic growth is till sputtering despite the government’s rhetoric. This latest development will certainly puncture the image of infallibility that the acolytes of Moditva seek to convey.

farm laws
Mathrubhumi Cartoon by Gopikrishnan

But it also shows how, on most big-ticket reforms, the BJP has proved unable to convince the nation or persuade the opposition of its initiatives, from labour laws land acquisition. Its style of bulldozing laws through with minimal discussion, no consultation with stakeholders, no reference of Bills to the Standing Committees of Parliament, and none of the persuasive lobbying that previous governments have sought to undertake to get new policies passed, has again come a cropper on the farm laws.

Economic reformists are concerned that the farm laws retreat signals one more failure of reform efforts in the face of the short-term expediency that characterises Indian politics. In their view, it is a problem for India that a determined group of agitationists defending their own vested interests can derail reforms that would benefit the economy as a whole. “Anyone who can assemble a few thousand people to block a national highway indefinitely can get their way against a majority government,” they grumble.

It is true that various development projects, from dams to high-speed railways, have been scuttled or interminably delayed by political opposition in various parts of the country. Land acquisition laws were already scrapped when even the ruling party’s supporters balked. Nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels faces intractable opposition from the people of every area where such plants are proposed to be installed. Construction activities face serious challenges from opponents of quarrying and sand-mining. Environmental activists frequently file cases against new construction initiatives, which receive a sympathetic hearing from the judiciary and especially the National Green Tribunal.

But these challenges are inevitable in a fractious democracy where multiple political interests must be accommodated in a consultative process before any meaningful transformation is accomplished. The lesson the Modi government has learned is that democracy is not just about winning elections and assuming that gives you a license to do as you please. Democracy is about what happens between elections – the constant process of contact, consultation and compromise through which democratic change is engineered. This is what the ruling party has proved rather inept at.

It is a pity that the Modi government learned this lesson seven years too late. The farm laws can be repealed, but no one can compensate for the 700 lives lost by the protestors during their year-long satyagraha. And other egregious mistakes, ranging from the feckless folly of the disastrous demonetisation, which knocked two and a half percent off India’s GDP growth, to the hasty and botched implementation of a much-needed Goods and Services Tax, which stalled subsequent efforts at growth, all had damaging consequences that cannot be undone.

It is also far from clear that repealing the laws (which will require legislative action by the BJP’s compliant majority in Parliament’s winter session) will really restore the confidence of the farmers in the Modi government and arrest Sikh disaffection. It might at best slow down a steady slide in the ruling party’s popularity, with the 2024 general election just two and a half years away.

That a government that refused to retreat -- even in the face of overwhelming evidence of its mistakes -- has now done so, might embolden the Opposition into demanding the repeal of other unpopular decisions, such as the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act which was widely seen as disempowering India’s Muslims. The remaining two and a half years of the Modi government’s term promise to be challenging – and fraught.

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