Expert opinions, calumny, praise, celebrations and self-flagellation have flowed like river Brahmaputra ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on the morning of 19 November, on Guru Parab, that his government was going to repeal the three farm laws. At CVoter, it was decided to leave expertise to the experts and conduct an opinion poll across India to find out what ordinary Indians thought about the issue. It was part of our routine India Tracker, where we interview randomly selected Indians across all the states in 11 languages every day. This particular snap poll covered opinion of about 3,000 respondents across India, right after the PM’s announcement.
The tracker items analysed on timeline cover about half a million respondents in last 12 months. Questions were drafted after much debate and the poll was conducted. The results offer a few common sense lessons for policymakers as well as those who often think they know more than policymakers.
Farm laws were popular
Lesson number one was that large sections of Indians supported the three farm laws despite the humble announcement of a repeal by Narendra Modi. To a question if the farm laws were beneficial for the farmers or not, more than 50 per cent said they were indeed beneficial. Interestingly, close to 47 per cent of opposition supporters and voters agreed that the farm laws were beneficial for the farmers. In earlier CVoter Tracker polls also it was clear that huge number of farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP were against the farm bills, but an equally overwhelming number of farmers outside these two-and-a-half domains across all other states were in support of these farm laws.
We got further hints when respondents were asked if the protests were politically motivated to weaken the BJP. Almost 6 out of every 10 respondents agreed with the proposition, with half of opposition voters also concurring. Third, when respondents were asked if the farm laws should be introduced again after more consultations, half of the respondents agreed and remaining quarters disagreed and remained mum. Clearly, despite outbursts of a ‘sell-out’ to the likes of Ambani and Adani, the farm reform laws remain popular.
Is it only political?
Lesson number two is that politics was inextricably linked with the issue. That is only to be expected. Everything in India nowadays, ranging from cricket to Bollywood to dietary choices, is about politics. For any analyst to expect any different is to be naïve, if not extremely stupid. When asked if the repeal of the farm laws will have an impact on assembly elections due in early 2022, more than 55 per cent of the responded asserted ‘yes’, with a higher proportion of opposition voters concurring. Just 31 per cent of respondents felt there would be no impact on assembly elections. Political polarisation is clearly visible in the responses. Majority of NDA supporters thought the protests were at the behest of a small group of rich farmers while majority of opposition supporters were convinced the protests were a mass movement.
Lesson three, and perhaps the most important one, is that you cannot force down even good policies down the throat of people without giving them a sense that they have been properly consulted. There is no doubt the farm laws were a good reform measure, particularly for small farmers in the long run. But the manner in which first an ordinance was passed and then the laws passed hurriedly in Parliament, antagonised a lot of farmers. De facto admission of this simple fact comes from substantial majority (52 per cent) of NDA supporters who agreed that the laws should be presented again after extensive consultations. On top of that, every second NDA supporter said Modi did a good thing by repealing the farm laws.
This simple dictum was best summed up by editor-in-chief of ThePrint, Shekhar Gupta, when he wrote hours after the laws were repealed: “The first blunder with the farm laws was to introduce these as ordinances…..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?” Guess the issue was not much about the laws, but the way the laws were presented.
Worry over reforms
The fourth lesson is the most dangerous one when it comes to the future of reforms. More than 40 per cent of respondents said that Prime Minister Modi succumbs to pressure on these issues like he did with the Land Acquisition Bill in 2015. Back then, almost 70 per cent polled in CVoter Tracker opined that the Land Acquisition Bill looked an anti-farmer and anti-poor step. Something went wrong in the messaging then, and something went wrong in messaging now. For a strong man like Modi, that is a sobering assessment. His apology came with clear understanding that the government could not make some farmers understand why it was a good step. Besides, an even bigger number of people surveyed said his U-turn was because he respects public sentiments. That is a polite way of stating an unpalatable thing.
More questions were raised about ongoing and pending reforms. About 43 per cent of respondents said that trade unions will exert pressure on the government to withdraw labour reform measures. Besides, 48 per cent said there will be pressure to stop privatisation. These fears in public sentiment are not unreal, considering the out-of-the-blue abstract “andolanjivi” voices that have started propping up on TV screens about every matter under the sun.
MSP recipe for disaster
But the most insidious indicator is the response when people were asked if farmer union leaders were right in demanding that Parliament pass a law guaranteeing MSP for all 23 crops that get them. More than 42 per cent respondents said the farm leaders were right, while a slightly higher 46 per cent said they were not. The economics is simple: back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that 50 per cent of the Union Budget will be spent on procurement if MSP is guaranteed by law. The balance 50 per cent will perhaps be left for other heads of expenditure. Even arm chair socialists would agree that this will be a sure-fire recipe for economic ruin and disaster. But we need to answer the farmers’ queries as well. Their suspicion will remain until the private sector actually comes up with a proven system of better earnings for the “annadata”. They won’t like to jump the ship till they see others sailing on a better ship.
But who will have the moral and political guts to stop this slide into lunacy? Modi acolytes still think he can. But faith, as they say, is eternal.
Yashwant Deshmukh is Founder of CVoter, and Sutanu Guru is Executive Director of CVoter Foundation. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)