Ever since Narendra Modi sprang a surprise on the nation on Friday morning by announcing that he is repealing the three contentious farm laws, several likely reasons have been put forward in media discussions. These range from upcoming elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh to national security concerns over Khalistani secessionism.
There could be a measure of truth in all these speculations, but we may never get to know the real reason behind Modi’s sudden U-turn. There is no escaping from another simple truth, however. This is the prime minister’s worst decision, ever. He appears diminished in stature, weak, ineffective and has lost a golden chance to push through a core economic revamp that had the potential to liberate India’s agricultural sector from the grip of powerful feudal kulaks.
It had taken considerable moral courage for the Modi government to take on vested interests in the most difficult of sectors where no meaningful reforms had taken place since Independence. The question, therefore, must be asked: to what end?
Modi was indeed facing dogged resistance from a resourceful, politically well-connected and economically powerful clique in implementing laws that follow two decades of discussion and procrastination. Yet, he had pan-national support and open backing from a majority of farmers in the country.
If he had shown determination and stood his ground, the prime minister would have further burnished his image as India’s reformer-in-chief, freed the agrarian economy and implemented measures in the agricultural sector that are similar in impact to the 1991 economic reforms. Modi’s capitulation before Audi-driving, chopper-riding landowners led by a bunch of thuggish middlemen undid all the hard work, sent all the wrong signals and achieved nothing at the cost of grave damage to his political capital.
One of the reasons Modi had won successive elections with a massive mandate is that people admired his courage to implement tough and risky reforms. He has now squandered that goodwill. There are several reasons why the rollback feels morally wrong, politically noxious and logically unjustifiable. I will focus on five.
A defeat for Parliamentary democracy
It is said that in a democracy, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It is for the state not to give in to an interest group that uses blackmailing, khap panchayat tactics and coercion to achieve its objectives.
Long in the discussion, these laws — The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 — were passed in the Parliament in September 2020 by elected lawmakers from the party that had won an overwhelming majority in general elections. The government that passed these bills had a democratic mandate and carried the will of the people.
The way a set of exceptionally organised, rich farmers from practically just two states of India managed to undermine and scuttle laws meant to empower millions of voiceless, small, poor and marginal farmers — it is hard to escape the conclusion that it is a resounding defeat for democracy. Important reforms have been sacrificed at the altar of politics.
During his speech announcing the repeal, Modi said: “Many farmers were happy with the reforms and we are grateful to them. We could not explain to some farmers despite our efforts.”
If a party that has over 300 seats in the Lower House of Parliament cannot achieve objectives that are unambiguously good for the country due to the objection of a few who fear the loss of power, it is evident that the democratic political system has been hijacked or rendered ineffectual by the most perfidious interest group.
Validation of street veto
If the state with all its might and veto over violence capitulates before street thugs who ran riot during Republic Day, unleashed violence against the state’s law and order machinery and were accused of carrying out “gangrapes”, lynching and barbaric violence, then the implications for that failure goes far beyond implementation of a few laws.
The message that goes out is that any interest group can mobilize enough people and hold the government to ransom with the threat of violence. This militates against the very framework of Parliamentary democracy. If the street mob is allowed to extend its veto over the state and force a change in legislation and policies, it skews the risk-reward model in favour of anarchists and hobbles India as a functional democracy. This also presents the Opposition with a viable toolkit even if they are beaten fair and square at the electoral hustings. If everything is to be settled on the streets, what good are election wins?
The protesting farmers, backed by enormous resources, stayed put on the state’s highways for months and damaged public infrastructure. That cost (not to the speak of the MSP that the pampered six percent insist on) will ironically be borne by ordinary, taxpaying citizens many of whom have been inconvenienced for months due to the agitation.
Small, marginal and poor farmers left in the lurch
These laws were meant to bring free-market choices for the average farmer who would now get the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to directly sell their farm produce intra-state or inter-state at a market price to private players outside the physical premises of markets notified under state Agricultural Produce Marketing legislations. That also meant that the influential interest group that had so far controlled this ecosystem would be loathed to let this disruption happen.
As ORF president Gautam Chikermane writes, “Throughout the protests, interests of those farmers who are not wealthy and do not own vast tracts of land were missing. With the U-turn, Modi has condemned them to another quarter-century of economic subjugation.”
The much-needed disruption of the rural hierarchies has been stalled, the transformation of India’s agrarian economy from a locally managed to an industrialized one where small and marginal farmers would have emerged as partner-entrepreneurs by tapping into the myriad opportunities has been scuttled. And all this has been done by a relatively small group of rich landholders and middlemen who see in the reforms an erosion of their political and financial clout and had staked their lives on thwarting the liberalization.
Body blow to policymaking
Modi’s capitulation before the thuggish middlemen has set back policymaking on this contentious issue by at least a few decades. If a government at the Centre that enjoys an overwhelming majority is hobbled at policymaking, there is little hope of these measures — that would have benefitted farmers who do not own vast tracts of land — getting ever implemented. It will now be deemed politically untouchable. The BJP, which had so far argued in favour of the implementation, will now have to carry out intellectual gymnastics to justify the decision taken by the prime minister. Such a move, however unconvincing, is already afoot.
Also, for the remainder of its tenure the Modi government has effectively been reduced to a lame-duck administration that will be unable to — or won’t be allowed to — carry out any worthwhile reform measures.
As Pratyasha Rath, a consultant associated with the social development and political sector writes: “In the months and years ahead, this is the template that will be followed by every interest group, and we can expect competitive anarchy playing out on the streets. The government has paved the way for that to happen.”
Appeasement is not a good policy
During his speech, Modi apologized to the section of farmers who had opposed the laws, blamed himself for not being able to convince them and requested the protesting farmers to withdraw their movement since the laws have been repealed. The formality, he said, will be completed during the Winter Session.
But this capitulation was never going to be enough, and the prime minister has another thing coming if he believes that he has bought peace with the protestors by acceding to their demand. One of the farm leaders, Rakesh Tikait, has announced the “protests” will carry on. He has presented the government with a new set of demands which includes a minimum support price mechanism to be made into statutory law.
All that Modi has succeeded in doing is trigger a downward spiral in unjust demands and fuel the political ambition of those for whom the battle was always political, never for the welfare of the poor and marginal farmers. The upcoming polls may see the likes of Tikait being wooed more openly by Opposition leaders.
Finally, it has been said that the farm laws, however well-intentioned, had been used by vested interests to fuel Khalistani separatism in Punjab.
Alongside, myriad more factors were at play. Veteran journalist Sheela Bhatt writes in Rediff: “the economy of gurdwaras, Punjab politics and the political leaders’ control of trade in mandis worth billions of rupees are intricately related. After the laws were passed the suspicion that they targeted the Sikh religious eco-system spread like wildfire. In the villages of Punjab Modi became a hate figure.”
While this may be true, it is unclear how surrendering to political blackmail helps the Centre in mitigating these challenges. The Khalistanis, if anything, may get bolder and the rich farmer-middlemen ecosystem will have increased further its political clout. If the BJP took this decision to cut its losses ahead of UP elections, then history should have told the party that submission and flip-flops are not signs of leadership, and it never pays.