One lesson of civilised, constitutional politics is that the more you sweat in parliament, the less you bleed on the streets (or indeed, the jungles). The Narendra Modi government could have avoided farmer unrest and protests had it adopted a broad-based social consultation process and taken its time to put the farm bills through the parliamentary process. Yes, a number of farmers’ associations, middlemen’s lobbies, and civil society groups would have raised their voices against the changes. Yes, the Congress and other opposition parties would have opposed the bills in Parliament. But the Bharatiya Janata Party is neither short of supporters in the media and the Indian population, nor of seats in Parliament for the Modi government’s reform proposals to fail. Skipping the journey and jumping to the destination merely meant that all stakeholders in the agricultural sector received a shock instead of an explanation, a ready-made decision instead of a hearing, and, in many cases, existential fears instead of positive expectation.
Why it chose this path is a mystery. It is easy to attribute it to this government’s ‘style’ of governance and close the discussion. If we set the style argument aside, the question becomes one of political management of reform. Could Prime Minister Modi and the BJP’s leadership have calculated that it is easier to get agricultural stakeholders to reconcile to a fait accompli than to build consensus first? The narrative dominance that the BJP currently enjoys might have encouraged the party’s leaders to pursue the course they did. After all, every government knows that once you get the protesters to go back home, what they were protesting against remains standing.
At their heart, the Narendra Modi government’s package of agricultural reforms is a major step in liberating farmers from the political economy that they have been trapped in — they provide legal and administrative basis to permit contract farming while protecting farmers’ rights, and they promise to insulate the agricultural sector from price and stock controls. For decades, we have acknowledged that Indian agriculture needs reform, and the chronic distress that farmers face is a consequence of policy frameworks that keep them trapped in a cycle of low productivity, indebtedness, dependence on the monsoon, and ultimately on the government. We knew that the systemic shackles that trapped Indian farmers had to be broken.
The central challenge facing any reformer is that even the intended beneficiaries of the reform usually fear the unknown god, and would rather live with the devil they have known. Cast back your memories — if you are old enough to have them — to the public debate of 1991-92 when the prospect of opening up the Indian economy to the world was received with manifold anxieties and vehement resistance. Yet today, we take the unprecedented prosperity those reforms created for granted, so much that we are undermining the winning formula by deliberately cutting ourselves off from the global economy in an unthinking bout of misplaced nationalism. What we know from India’s own experience of the past three decades is that structural reforms liberalising the economy are not only necessary, but tend to show results very quickly. That’s because India’s fundamental economic problem is one of lack of economic freedom and any reform that makes individuals, firms, and societies freer than before will lead to greater overall prosperity.
But we also knew that structural reform of agriculture will entail rebalancing of Union-state relations, deepening inter-state cooperation, and above all, genuine, wide-ranging, democratic consultation with farmers and other stakeholders. If we have deep disquiet among farmers across the country today, it is because they have genuine fears that the mandi-middleman-MSP system that they know will be replaced with an unknown system of markets, corporates, and technology. And if we have lakhs of farmers at the gates of the national capital, it is because the Modi government decided that legislation could come before consultation and persuasion.
Need for consultations
The other consequence of skipping the steps of deliberative democracy is that the policy argument plays out in emotions instead of economics. And as the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ demonstrates, in India agriculture has always been cast in emotional, even moral terms. [As an aside, see why moralising is a bad idea]. Most people will agree with the view that unlike, say engineers, auto-rickshaw drivers, or postal workers, farmers perform a different, more socially valuable role. This means even good economic arguments get derided because they do not appeal to our emotions. At the same time, much of the public support for PM Modi and the BJP is also based on emotional grounds. We have, thus, ended up with a clash of emotions, which, unfortunately, is not the best way to settle an issue as important as the future of Indian agriculture.
What the farmers’ associations are demanding — debt relief and guaranteed remunerative prices — are not only reasonable but also not inconsistent with the overall direction of the reforms. The Modi government should make a genuine effort to substantially address the real fears and misgivings of Indian farmers, instead of seeing it as an exercise to patronisingly “explain” the reforms to them. There is too little trust in Indian society for aggrieved farmers to take the government’s word that the reforms will leave them better off. For reforms to be successful, it is necessary to accept both the legitimacy of the farmers’ grievances and the genuineness of their demands.
Nitin Pai is the director of the Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.