Once upon a time, when India was a far more open democracy, we used to hear the word “samanvaye” or consensus a lot. But it has disappeared now.
Don’t mistake consensus to be a weakness of the coalition era. It was a recognition that policymaking must be democratic in nature if it has to succeed in a democracy. All stakeholders must be on board. When there is opposition, a middle path must be found. This can result in slow implementation sometimes, but it makes sure that the impact is long-lasting. If we have to shove policy down the throats of people, we might as well formally become an autocracy like China or North Korea (take your pick).
When the Left Front government in West Bengal tried to forcibly acquire land of farmers in Nandigram and Singur, it was overthrown even after 34 years of nonstop rule. So long as we are an electoral democracy, we must have consensual policymaking.
You could have two views about the Narendra Modi government’s efforts to reform agricultural marketing, procurement and sale. At a time of food abundance, our agricultural economy can’t be stuck in the food-scarcity era. But the protesting farmers are not reacting in a knee-jerk manner, and yes they know what the triple laws are trying to do. Before you accuse farmers of not knowing their own interests and being misled by Leftist union leaders, consider their specific objections.
The devil is in the detail
Nobody dislikes having a choice. But the triple laws, farmers fear, will leave them with no choice. The certainty of the state-sponsored procurement system will be replaced by the whims and fancies of the corporate sector. And the poorly implemented farm insurance scheme hasn’t given them much cause to trust the private sector.
Farmers are particularly concerned about how the terms ‘trade area’, ‘trader’, and ‘market fee’ are defined, and how dispute resolution is to be carried out. All of these are geared towards the private sector, and farmers are already reeling from falling real incomes to be ready for private sector uncertainty.
The new laws seek to diminish the state-backed APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) mandis or markets by excluding them from the definition of trade area. The private sector can trade anywhere, but the APMC mandis can’t go beyond their ‘physical boundaries’. The new definition of ‘trader’ seeks to effectively end the employment of agricultural commission agents, known as arhatiyas. Demonised as middlemen, we need to ask why farmers trust arhatiyas more than the government or corporates. It’s because farmers have a long-standing relationship of trust with them. You can’t break such relationships of economic trust overnight with ordinances and laws brought about without creating a consensus. Or at least you shouldn’t.
Similarly, the laws do away with any market transaction fees. Such fees make the APMC mandis economically viable. They exist for a reason. With these fees gone, corporate players will again have an edge over the APMC mandis, which farmers fear will collapse.
The provision on dispute resolution sounds a lot like what happens in our police stations: people are asked to ‘compromise’ rather than seek justice. The quasi-legal dispute resolution mechanism in these laws, farmers fear, is loaded against them. Powerful corporates will have the last laugh in an arbitrary system.
Why not create a consensus?
These laws were first introduced as ordinances in June, at the height of the Covid pandemic when protests were impossible. That itself tells you how undemocratic this government is. Why does a government with 303 seats, and then some more of allies, need to introduce far-reaching legislation as ordinances? The ordinance route is meant for laws that may need to be put in place urgently. But the Modi government uses ordinances because it does not respect the spirit of parliamentary debate and discussion, which are, or should be, the lifeblood of a democracy. Parliamentary discussions can and should ideally lead to a clause by clause consideration of laws being passed. The government should listen to detailed objections — so if the definition of ‘trader’ is problematic, the government should be open to changing it.
That’s what Parliament is for. But the executive today makes it clear that it sees Parliament as a mere annoyance. A controversial bill will suddenly be passed on the last day of the session, not giving MPs, media, stakeholders or the general public any chance to understand and debate them.
Ideally, the Modi government should have reached out to political parties, farmer unions and civil society to say that it wants to bring about private sector participation in agriculture. This is how we are planning to go about it. What do you think?
This government hates doing that. It feels it is an affront to its dignity and pride to create consensus. Why persuade stakeholders when you can discredit them with propaganda? Already, our peacock-loving Prime Minister has said farmers are being misled. Such is the lack of consensus-building that even the BJP’s long-standing ally, Punjab’s Akali Dal, has had to walk out of the government. Clearly, the BJP doesn’t consider it necessary to even take its allies on board over decisions that can cost it votes.
The truth will be discredited with falsehood, mouthpiece media will be used to attack farmers. Perhaps we will be told that these farmers are backed by Maoists and some farm leaders may even be arrested under a law meant for terrorists?
There is perhaps nothing this government dislikes more than having to create consensus. From demonetisation to GST, from changing the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir to holding JEE-NEET exams in a pandemic, this is a unilateral government. When people all over India were protesting against the ‘chronology’ laws of NPR-NRC-CAA, the Modi government didn’t even attempt a dialogue, and is instead persecuting many protesters. Even the British Raj was happy to talk to Gandhi and tried to persuade him against protesting.
The Modi government mistakenly thinks a majority in Parliament gives it the freedom to do absolutely whatever it likes with the lives and livelihoods of 1.3 billion people. That is not how democracy works. Democracy works through samanvaye — consensus.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.