From pandemic and Pangong to farm protests, how Narendra Modi showed his mettle as prime minister

Socio-political change can be daunting; more so, if it challenges the concepts upon which a country’s edifice rests. ‘Reforms’ have been the...

Socio-political change can be daunting; more so, if it challenges the concepts upon which a country’s edifice rests. ‘Reforms’ have been the byword for a long time in India. They dictate a political party’s course of action and, more often than not, can even predict the course of an election. Yet most political outfits and their leaders trying to initiate revisions or remodelling of the entrenched system run the risk of losing power, annoying ‘vote banks’ and alienating the electorate. This is the reason why perhaps many sectors in dire need of reforms have been mainly left untouched.

In September 2020, both houses of India’s Parliament passed three acts to usher in long-overdue reforms in the agriculture sector. The ruling BJP party claimed that the laws would remove the middleman’s monopoly, unshackle the farmer from the government-controlled Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) that ran local agricultural markets or mandis and allow them to sell their produce anywhere in the country. Popularly referred to as the Farm Bills, the three acts replaced Ordinances promulgated by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in June 2020. In addition to providing barrier-free trade for farmers’ produce beyond these notified mandis, the farmer was now free to sell to agricultural businesses, supermarket chains, online grocers or, as before, through the APMC mandis.

After Independence, though India remained non-aligned, it chose the Soviet economic model. The command-and-control economy impacted agriculture as well. Unlike Europe or the US, Indian farmers could not sell their produce in open markets. The government-controlled APMC meant to safeguard the farmer from exploitation ended up becoming the biggest oppressor over time, the BJP government contended. The three acts — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 — would reverse the history of Indian agriculture, the ruling party claimed. It would purportedly empower farmers to enter into farming agreements with private players before production for the sale of agri-produce. Besides empowering the farmer, the laws offered enough safeguards to the farmer, and most importantly, appeared to have the potential to raise the farmer’s income, averred the architects of the law.

Since Independence, each successive government has promised to transform farming laws, bestowing more power to the farmer, yet every time something was attempted, it was met with significant opposition. In 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee set up India’s first National Commission on Farmers (NCF) led by Sompal Shastri, a pathbreaking body that would look into problems of farmers and suggest solutions to improve farm income and the standard of living of farm households. It sought to make farming not only more remunerative but also more attractive to younger generations. Unlike a fact-finding commission, the emphasis of the NCF was on farmers rather than on agriculture. It would help prepare the road map for sustainable development of agriculture, optimize its contribution to the economy’s growth and development, and make Indian agriculture globally competitive.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government later appointed MS Swaminathan, the well-known geneticist, renowned for his leading role in India’s Green Revolution, as the chairman of the NCF. In its 2006 report, the NCF recommended a minimum net income to improve economic viability and brought attention to enabling sustainable rural livelihoods, completing unfinished land reforms and more. Unfortunately, in the decade that followed, for some reason or the other, the government did not or was unable to act upon most of these recommendations.

For nearly two decades, the debate surrounding agriculture reforms continued. The Manmohan Singh-led UPA government didn’t seem keen to take action on the Draft National Policy for Farmers, prepared by the NCF and placed before the Parliament in October 2007. Some of the Modi government’s initial attempts to initiate reforms in the sector, such as the Land Acquisition Ordinance, were labelled anti-farmer. In his monthly radio address, ‘Mann ki Baat’, Modi later declared that his government would not reissue the 2015 ordinance that made it easier for companies to acquire agricultural land and accept any suggestions to benefit farmers in the pending Land Bill.

The Land Acquisition Ordinance in 2015 sparked opposition and demonstrations by farmer organizations across India, but it was nothing compared to the reactions the 2020 Farm Bills have generated. Two months after President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent, thousands of farmers began camping at several points on Delhi’s borders, demanding a repeal of the three farm laws. Dominated by farmers from Punjab, Haryana and some parts of Uttar Pradesh, the protests attracted national and international press. The reportage focused on how the bills ran the risk of alienating the farmer and many communities across India.

Media and on-ground reports indicated that farmers apprehended that moving towards a market-based system would eventually pull off the Minimum Support Price (MSP) safety net for their crops. The government’s assurances that the ‘old system’ such as mandis and mechanisms such as MSP for crops would continue, did little to alleviate their fears. Experts from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) saying that the bill was a step in the right direction did not help in quelling misgivings about the laws.

Most political parties at some point had promised what the Farm Bills intended, but that did not stop the Opposition from joining the protests. The Congress 2019 election manifesto had declared that it would repeal the Agricultural Produce Market Committees Act and make agricultural trade, including exports and inter-state, free from all restrictions. One of the oldest allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), quit the NDA, citing that the bills were not in the best interest of the farmers. Ironically, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the Akali Dal’s lone minister in the Modi government, in a social media video urged Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh to not mislead the farmers over the Centre’s ordinances on agricultural reforms only days before the bills were passed. The Facebook video showed a letter written by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar to the SAD chief, Sukhbir Singh Badal, assuring that the MSP and government procurement system will continue.

The farmers’ protests began to mirror the resistance that met the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. In addition to the protesting farmers, civil society members, Opposition parties and foreign supporters rallied behind the protesting farmers. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments backing the agitating farmers acted as a shot in the arm for the demonstrators but, at the same time, critics were quick to point out the Canadian Premier’s hypocrisy as it was Canada that routinely opposed MSP and other domestic agriculture measures of the Indian government at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Comments similar to Trudeau’s made by other politicians in Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) also encouraged the farmers to continue with their agitation. In early December 2020, the Congress leader and MP from Ludhiana Ravneet Singh Bittu in an interview to a newspaper said that some Khalistani elements had penetrated the farmer protests and urged Home Minister Amit Shah to intervene.2 A few days later, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) summoned 40 people to investigate alleged Khalistani funding. However, independent analysts pointed out that the agitators were not only from Punjab but other states as well, where there were no so-called Khalistani links.

The government had initiated talks with the farmers in the first week of December 2020, but there was little headway for nearly eight weeks after 11 rounds. With the agitation coloured by political, economic and regional overtones, the situation has turned rather complex and entangled in knots.

On the afternoon of 26 January 2021, India’s Republic Day, a tractor parade organized by thousands of farmers turned into anarchy on New Delhi’s streets. The march broke through barriers, attacked the police and scores of protesters breached the towering walls of the iconic Red Fort and unfurled the Nishan Sahib, the triangular saffron-coloured flag representing the Sikh faith. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over 40 Indian farmers’ unions that had announced the parade with tractors and marching contingents in Delhi, distanced itself from the Republic Day violence and claimed that anti-social elements had infiltrated the peaceful march.

Irrespective of how the events played out, the violence marred images of 26 January were bound to raise questions about India’s position as a world leader. A series of nationwide lockdowns resulting in the migrant crisis had worsened India’s financial and logistical burdens, which had been reeling under a slowdown of the economy for the past few quarters.

However, despite the world being in the throes of a global pandemic since March 2020, India has emerged as a significant player, both in terms of setting an example in handling the COVID-19 crisis and in providing relief to other nations.

On the one hand, the Modi government was battling the coronavirus pandemic, and on the other hand, it was engaged in one of its worst military stand-offs in decades. In May 2020, Chinese troops had come deep into the India-patrolled territory of Ladakh’s Pangong Tso Lake and had erected tents and guard posts. The row escalated on 14 June 2020 when an unprovoked attack by the Chinese border troops in Galwan Valley claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. Armed with weapons such as nail-studded iron rods, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had ambushed Indian troops, who eventually managed to overpower the enemy and inflict considerable damage despite being outnumbered. A fortnight after the heinous attack, the prime minister in an unscheduled visit to Ladakh addressed army troops at Nimu, a forward base at a height of 11,000 feet, and saluted them for their courage. Modi had sent out a tough message that while India wanted peace and was willing to engage in dialogue, it was also ready to go to war if needed.

India’s assertive stand against China’s expansionist schemes did not go unnoticed. The Indian Army engaged with the PLA in sustained talks over months, while at the same time, deploying thousands of soldiers, fighter aircraft and heavy artillery along icy Himalayan slopes. Towards the end of August, the PLA reportedly resorted to an aggressive move in the areas opposite south of Pangong Tso, but the Indian Army forced the Chinese to negotiate by occupying heights on the southern bank of the lake.

In a statement in Parliament in February 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced that both countries had reached an agreement on disengagement on the Pangong lake’s north and south banks. In a rare sight, the world witnessed China withdrawing 130–140 tanks, 30 artillery guns, some 2,000 troops from the south bank and 30 artillery guns and almost 5,000 soldiers from the north bank.

Besides emerging as an alternative Asian giant in the region that could stand up to China militarily, India also emerged as the global relief and humanitarian leader as it began exporting the Covid-19 vaccine to various countries of the world. In the last days of January 2021, India also kicked off the world’s most extensive vaccination programme to inoculate 1.3 billion people as quickly as possible. Dubbed as the world’s pharmacy, India’s vaccine diplomacy saw nearly 60 million Made-in-India COVID-19 vaccines supplied to 77 countries as of late May 2021.

Sometimes, crisis and threats unexpectedly present the right platform to question traditional approaches and provide new solutions. The 2020 coronavirus pandemic pushed agriculture reforms in India after nearly a decade-long discussion. The lockdown induced mass migration of the urban workforce back to villages, increasing pressure on resources. For the first time in independent India’s history, a government put laws in place that sought to do away with restrictions on the sale and pricing, ostensibly to enable a national market for farmers. The BJP government has pointed out that criticizing the Narendra Modi government as anti-farmer or anti-MSP is misplaced as procurement of crops from farmers and payments made at MSP was higher than that offered by previous governments. Between 2014–19, the government procured 76.85 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) pulses, a 74-fold rise from 1.52 LMT procured between 2009 and 2014. As of 21 September 2020, the government made Rs 7 lakh crore in MSP payments, nearly double than that made by the previous government.

India now also stands to become one of the biggest beneficiaries of companies shifting their manufacturing base out of China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Global telecom giant Samsung has decided to move its Rs 4,800 crore factory from China to Uttar Pradesh. Pitching India as the fastest-growing Asian economy in 2021, experts at research houses such as Nomura have shown India in a very positive light. Expecting India to be on the cusp of a cyclical recovery, Nomura anticipates a growth rate of 9.9 percent in 2021, eclipsing China and Singapore that are pegged at 9 percent and 7.5 percent respectively during the same period.

As India emerges from the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic that engulfed it in April 2021, it faces a multitude of challenges across numerous fronts. Experts believe that the economy is showing signs of overcoming the impact of the second wave-induced lockdown.

India’s economy is set to get a boost with the establishment of a regulated international bullion exchange that would make gold a mainstream asset. Slated to be operational by August 2021, the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in Gujarat’s GIFT City will shift a considerable portion of gold trading from Dubai to India, the largest consumer of gold in the world at 800–900 tonnes annually. The setting up of an international bullion exchange would also see a portion of the estimated 22,000 tonnes of idle gold lying in Indian households come to the market as sellers will get a fair and transparent price. The challenges in the healthcare system as well as its management and administrative services need to be addressed to ensure that any future emergency does not strain either to the limit.

India is well on its way to charting its new place in the world, notwithstanding challenges, criticism and opposition, both at home and abroad.

The writer is a well-known film historian and author. The article is an edited excerpt from his latest book, ‘The Midway Battle: Modi’s Roller-coaster Second Term’ (Bloomsbury publications).

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India World News: From pandemic and Pangong to farm protests, how Narendra Modi showed his mettle as prime minister
From pandemic and Pangong to farm protests, how Narendra Modi showed his mettle as prime minister
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