The Modi government has done the right thing in announcing the repeal of the three farm laws. It was the only way to resolve a withering conflict.
It doesn’t change the fact, however, that the farm laws by and large were reformist, good for Indian farmers. Nor can it change the fact that these laws were dead on arrival. Contradictory?
Because, in a democracy it doesn’t matter how convinced the rulers are of a policy being good for the people. They have to first convince people. In the summer of 2020, when much of this reformist action was taking place, no one saw the need to do so. In any case, there was still a reasonably fresh and heady majority in Parliament. There was no opposition. The media by and large was friendly, if not worse. Supporters of reform, including this columnist, were saying never waste a crisis. So why bother with niceties of parliamentary practice? Why bother checking the parachute before jumping?
Within the first few weeks, it became evident that no one had bothered to do any groundwork, build consensus with the opposition, or even with allies (Shiromani Akali Dal, for example), or reach out to convince those most affected by the changes. You cannot take major decisions following the doctrine of shock-and-awe. The Modi government should have known it, having messed up with the un-debated, discussed or war-gamed demonetisation.
The first blunder with the farm laws was to introduce these as ordinances. We understand that once you have brute majorities, you think you can take Parliament in your stride. Promulgate ordinances, and then passing these into laws is a mere formality. What this means is that parliamentary approval becomes a fait accompli and the debate of mere academic importance.
You can get away with it on issues which already have a wide consensus or which affect a small number of people. But when you are dealing with an issue of the highest political sensitivity like agriculture, affecting nearly half your population directly, must you do it through the ordinance route? Hey you poor, ganwaar (rustic) fellows, we know what is best for you. Now say thank you and get back to work.
It doesn’t work like that in humankind’s first and most tradition-bound business, agriculture. Agricultural practices get passed down through generations and get ossified. It is delusional to think that you can bring about change by diktat, no matter how popular you might be. Behind the Green Revolution also stood more than five years of persuasion, extensive work and direct communication with farmers. Native evangelists for the idea emerged, and convinced the farmers in the regions that were targeted. Now, we wanted to reverse these farm habits and economics overnight, through three ordinances.
The Green Revolution began about 53 years back. That it has indeed run its course is evident nowhere better than in Punjab. If the strongest opposition to the laws has come from the state that needed this reform most of all, it only proves the reformer, in this case the Modi government, didn’t do its homework.
On top of it was the arrogance of a second successive and better majority. So power-drunk has the BJP been, and so devoid of any internal debate or voices of disagreement within, that no one was willing to understand or acknowledge that the state in all of north India least impressed by ‘Modi magic’ is Punjab.
The deep-set BJP-RSS inability to understand the Sikhs complicated this further. The fact is the Sikhs have a lot in common with the Hindus, but they are not Hindus. And a very large number of them resent the idea of homogenising Hindutva as much as the Christians or Muslims.
When they found the Sikhs not only not falling in line but responding with such defiance as to lay a siege around Delhi, campaigns of calumny and conspiracy theories began. Khalistan, foreign hand, Sikh radicalism became the dominant talking points for BJP gladiators on TV channels. By that time, the case for the new farm laws was lost.
Next to the BJP’s inability to understand Punjab, the Sikhs and the Jats, or to accept that there is a large territory near Delhi that does not follow Narendra Modi with eyes shut as the crores might do in the Hindi heartland, was the lack of respect for Parliament.
That’s why, put the cart before the horse, toss an ordinance, have Lok Sabha pass it with voice vote, and rail-road it through Rajya Sabha in a farce that the entire country saw. See it like a farmer, the one most apprehensive and ignorant about this sudden, dramatic change, in not just their traditional business but their two-generation lifestyles. These guys are doing this sudden big thing, say this is great for me, but won’t even give me the comfort of watching a proper debate and voting in both houses?
This is the BJP’s second big retreat. The new Land Acquisition Bill had suffered from the same ugly haste, lack of preparation and consensus building. Have majority, pass bill. Just one smart line from Rahul Gandhi, suit-boot ki sarkar, killed and cremated that bill, though the Lok Sabha had passed it. But then five years is too long a time for an all-conquering political leadership to remember any lessons learnt.
The post-2019 Parliament has seen a flurry of such law-making. The action on Article 370 and Kashmir’s status, for example, was just plonked in Parliament one morning. It was over by the evening, almost like India defeating Scotland in the T20 World Cup in 39 deliveries. On Kashmir, the opposition was mostly conflicted, national opinion was overwhelmingly in favour, Kashmir and Kashmiris too far. Then the Citizenship Amendment Act followed, along with the loaded NRC chatter around it. It achieved nothing for the BJP.
It still lost West Bengal, suffered the ignominy of Delhi burning under its watch, and is bending over backwards to do repair-work with our closest and most important friend in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh. Further, even CAA is dead in the water. It was killed by the way it was packaged and presented. You can’t pass laws like that and yet seek the friendship of Gulf Arabs and Bangladesh. Once it comes to party interest and such crucial aspects of the national interest, there was no choice but to retreat.
To return to reforms, we have seen two other major reverses, again with decisions we had supported editorially. The new labour codes, passed by Parliament more than a year ago, aren’t yet notified. The decision to lower interest rates on government-run small savings schemes, in keeping with the market realities, was rolled back. Somebody panicked in both cases.
That somebody was taught a few tough lessons. Namely, limitations of a parliamentary majority in a democracy that, however smothered and subdued, is still ticking. Second, that no matter how dominant you may be, India is a federation of states and you have your chief ministers in only 12 of the 28. Which means there is a lot of India that doesn’t follow you unquestioningly. Agriculture is largely a state issue. You’d be reckless, and breathtakingly arrogant, to change its basic structure without taking the states on board.
The final lesson is the most cruel one. The perils of governing a continent-sized, diverse and federal nation like the chief minister of a state. Most of our states now have fleeting assembly sessions, no debates, and the chief minister acts as the dictator. This cuts across party lines. Just because you have the almighty central agencies, CBI, ED, NIA, NCB and more, you think you can roll over the federal impulse. You can’t.
Will these lessons now be learnt, we don’t know. Usually smart people learn more from defeat than victory. It is just that based on what we’ve seen so far, that prospect doesn’t seem so likely here.