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Farm laws episode lays bare India’s internal disunity. It’s time to fix it

India cannot meet the looming challenges to its growth and national security without first making maximum efforts to strengthen internal unity.

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To some Indians, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise announcement about repealing the three farm laws may be viewed as a victory for democracy. The forces at play in the political economy may have demonstrated their democratic strength. But India might have lost. For, there is no dispute that India’s economically and strategically important agriculture sector is in dire need of reform. Another thing that India needs to watch out for is that a weakened government, civil unrest, and inability to carry forward important economic reforms can all be exploited by foes.

For a few decades, farmers have been unwittingly imprisoned by the government, ostensibly to protect them. The argument for protection was based on the need to progress. However, India’s farmers must be set free to decide what they want to grow and whom to sell. Lack of reform has resulted in the overall awful state of the farmers. It is a long overdue and key public policy reform amongst several others for the agricultural sector. Barring some big farmers, the perpetual hardships and negative state of affairs of the majority of India’s farmers should be a cause of concern for the country’s political class.

Discontented farmers, their dependents, and others who are part of the support systems for the agriculture industry across the country can become a flame that fans India’s disunity. In particular, any path giving a religious colour to the farmers’ protests must be eschewed. No doubt, this is easier said than done.

Also read: Modi govt’s farm laws misadventure will hurt urbanisation

The external threat is real

There should be no doubt among Indian planners that both China and Pakistan are seeking to keep India weak. China’s intention is derived from the larger, global-level competition with the US. Pakistan’s is derived from its belief that a strong India can pose an existential threat. Both countries expect to check India’s developmental progress. Thus, creating territorial and terrorism-based insecurity is only a means to achieve such ends. But going by various decisions of the governments and political parties, it seems that in general, India’s political class is insufficiently sensitive to the growing challenges that are animating its external security landscape.

It is high time that Prime Minister Modi held a closed-door session with parliamentarians of all parties with a briefing on India’s strategic landscape. India’s perception of internal and external threats must be explained. It will establish the urgency for fostering internal unity. India’s political class must seek to sink their differences to unite against growing external threats. They will have to agree to disagree and keep their differences aside till such time it is warranted in national interest. Even ideological differences relating to Hindu majoritarianism and other divisive elements that animate the current political landscape need to take a back seat through mutual understanding within the political class.

Disunity will result in slowing down the development of tools of statecraft that are urgently needed to strengthen India’s ability to defend its territorial integrity, sovereignty, value systems, culture, and developmental growth. There is no doubt that the decision to withdraw the three farm laws is a step that will weaken the forces of disunity in the frontline state like Punjab.

In general, India’s unity is threatened by vectors that are born of the country’s diversity. Religion remains the most divisive force for India and it is evident that religious polarisation is gaining unbridled strength. It has, unfortunately, become the currency of electoral power and is in bed with a demographic bulge and burgeoning unemployment. A significant portion of India’s unemployed populace can be attracted to extremist views that now partake as frontline soldiers that defend religion and lay siege and assault other religions.

Also read: What farm laws retreat by Modi govt tells us about ruling India like a CM with brute majority

An unacknowledged failure

Prime Minister Modi attributed the failure of the farm reform measure to the inability of a small section of farmers to see the benefit that would accrue to them from free trade and contract farming. What was left unsaid was the failure of the government in the field of communications. This failure is evident at three levels and spawns disunity.

The first level is the poor interaction between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition. Steamrolling major and important decisions in Parliament without detailed discussions has become the norm. Both sides seem to be talking at each other rather than to each other. Mature, across-the-table dialogues are missing. The result is felt in the loss of dissenting views that can serve to enrich debate and improve outcomes.

The second level is at the Centre-state level of the federal system. Lack of consultation with the states has become par for the course in the Centre’s style of governance. This has caused considerable heartburn and some states have adopted an attitude of defiance. Such a situation is dangerous and holds potential for deepened disunity.

The third level is between the government and the populace at large. Springing surprises on the population with very little or no consultation with the stakeholders has become a not uncommon style of governance. This is coupled with a media squeeze that attempts to control the narrative and mostly dish out views that support the government. Statistical jugglery to project a feel-good image to the population is another common technique adopted to keep the masses misinformed, hopeful and distracted.

Both internally and externally, India’s political power is inhibited by the inability to leverage information as a tool of statecraft in the pursuit of national interests. This is despite all-round recognition of its importance in the information age.

It is indeed ironic that the political parties, through their respective information technology cells, have been able to speedily become effective tools to enhance partisan interests. On the other hand, there is a lot of room for improvement in the public information mechanisms of the central and state governments. Political parties have been able to attract more talent than the government to manage and operate in the information domain.

India cannot possibly meet the looming challenges to its growth and national security without first making maximum efforts to strengthen internal unity. The political class needs to wake up and act. Prime Minister Modi, who is so fond of giving a bear hug to foreign leaders, must take the lead and, for a change, start hugging some leaders of the opposition. It may help and for the cause, it may be a minuscule price to pay.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat;  He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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