Repeal of farm laws: Masterstroke or political compulsion?
The decision announced by the Prime Minister on the morning of November 19 is an event bigger than the announcement of these three farm laws. Policy analysts and political pundits will read the decision to repeal the farm laws from their point of view in the coming days, but one thing is clear that this decision has directly been influenced by the political implications of the farmers’ movement for the coming Assembly elections.
On the auspicious day of Gurpurab, Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised everybody by announcing the decision of repealing the three controversial farm laws that farmers have been protesting on the Delhi borders for almost a year. In my opinion, it is the biggest newsbreak of the year and the implications of this decision will be felt in the coming years. It will change the course of decision-making on the front of economic policies and the policies regarding the agriculture sector in the country.
The decision announced by the Prime Minister on the morning of November 19 is an event bigger than the announcement of these three farm laws. Policy analysts and political pundits will read this decision from their point of view in the coming days, but one thing is clear that this decision has directly been influenced by the political implications of the farmers’ movement for the coming Assembly elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and two other states going to elections early 2022.
The government brought three farm laws, namely the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 through the ordinance route on June 5, 2020. It was the Corona period and the government felt that the crisis was an opportunity to go for big reforms. Many policy analysts and economists saw these three farm laws as the 1991 moment for the agriculture sector, which they believe was left out of the bogey of economic reforms. But they, including the government, did not imagine the opposition against these reforms that gradually built up in the days to come.
Initially, the farmers started protesting against the three farm laws in Punjab and for the first three months, till September 2020, it was Punjab, where the agitation continued on the ground. Only with a nationwide bandh in September 2020 was the seriousness of the agitation brought to the national level. After this bandh, the farmers’ organizations started creating a front and announced that if the government did not repeal the law they would come to Delhi. But the government was not in a mood to give any concession to the protesting farmers and opposition parties, who were against the laws.
The government’s determination to pass the bills in the parliament showed its approach. But it was adding to the anger among the farmers against the laws. On 27 November 2020, farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh came to Delhi and were stopped on borders. There were unfortunate incidents like the one at Lal Quila on the Republic Day, when lakhs of farmers entered Delhi from all sides and violence took place. Before this, negotiations took place between the government and the farmers' organizations’ forum Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) almost a dozen times to resolve the issue, but they never reached an amicable solution. The farmers’ organizations remained adamant on the demand for repealing the three farm laws and legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price (MSP).
After the January 26 incident, a time came when it appeared that the agitation would end. But after January 28, the emotional appeal of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) national spokesperson Rakesh Tikait revived the movement. The unions started holding big farmer panchayats across the northern and western states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and some other states like Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal. BJP lost the West Bengal assembly elections, and the farm leadership claimed it as their victory also.
Now, with all this background, one can see the November 19 decision as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political strategy. Uttar Pradesh is the most crucial political state of the country and the road to central power also goes through UP. BJP wants to come back to power in UP at any cost in the coming Assembly elections in early 2022. The influence of the farmers’ agitation against the farm laws has now gone beyond the western UP and Terai area of the state. Earlier, it was affecting the region from Saharanpur to Shahjhanpur, but after the Lakhimpur Kheri violence, it has reached up to Bahraich and accounts for 120 Assembly seats. This number is not small and may make or break a government in UP. It also has influence in the Uttarakhand’s plains and the number of seats in the plains area has become crucial for any party to form the government in Uttarakhand.
On the other hand, in Punjab, BJP lost one of its oldest allies, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and along with it, the political ground also. Now, by repealing the laws, it will try to soften the anger of the farmers to bring them back to its fold with the help of the potential ally, former Chief Minister and old Congress stalwart Captain Amarinder Singh. This approach will also stop the alienation of the Sikh community from the BJP — this is one of the reasons behind today’s decision.
Definitely, the decision of repealing the three farm laws will help BJP politically to get back some of its voters. But it will not fully repair the political damage done by the agitation. We have to wait till the parliamentary process of repealing the laws gets completed. The farmers’ unions' comments are guarded ones. They are celebrating on the borders of Delhi the victory of their agitation. But they have issued statements that they will wait till the repealing process gets completed and that they are not ending their agitation soon. At the same time, they are in the mood for some tough negotiations on the issue of legal guarantee for MSP. The issue of legal cases registered against the farmers during the agitation will also come up in the talks to take place in the coming days. One thing is clear that the top leadership of the government has accepted the main demand of the farmers. But we need to wait and watch what is coming in the next few weeks.
Many people will say that this is the end of the road for economic reforms in the country and that the government will not take bold steps now. But this agitation also has lessons for political parties, policymakers and opinion-makers, including the media, that in a democracy everything is possible. A powerful government can be forced to concede to demand if an agitation remains non-violent and sustained. But at the same time, it is also true that the status quo in agriculture is not good for the farmers and the country. Agriculture needs reforms but with consensus, and taking all stakeholders into confidence is the basic criterion to achieve the desired goal. Agriculture is in a crisis and needs a solution. This agitation is not just against the three farm laws but also against the frustration built in the last two decades due to poor financial gains in the agriculture sector. We need a new beginning for the sector for a better future for the coming generation in Bharat that is rural India.
(This article also appeared on news9live.com.)