Return of the farm lobby on the political and economic landscape

With the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the three controversial farm laws will be repealed, it has become clear that the farm lobby has made its comeback on the political and economic landscape of the country. Its impact will be visible in the direction of politics as well as on the economic policies in the days to come.

Return of the farm lobby on the political and economic landscape

With the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of Gurparab on November 19 that the three controversial farm laws will be repealed, it has become clear that the farm lobby has made its comeback on the political and economic landscape of the country. Its impact will be visible in the direction of politics as well as on the economic policies in the days to come. Post the implementation of the economic liberalization policies of 1991, the importance of the agricultural sector kept on waning and other sectors of the economy got priority on the government’s agenda. The influence of the Ministry of Agriculture on the government’s decisions, too, went on weakening over these three decades. But in its bid to repeat the history of the 1991 economic reforms, the Narendra Modi government’s move to bring the three farm laws cost it dear. The three farm laws brought through ordinances on June 5, 2020, had the purpose of reforms in the agricultural sector. The government did not realise then that the laws would make history, but this history would bring about a lot of changes that would make their impact felt for decades.

Protests started against the three laws — Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 — just days after they were promulgated. These laws were touted as momentous reforms, but at the same time these were rushed through with the help of ordinances. Despite the growing protests from the farmers and questions being raised by political parties, the Bills associated with these laws were passed in both houses in September 2020 and given the shape of Acts. Questions were asked on the mode of passing the bills in Parliament, especially in the Rajya Sabha, and the Opposition launched fierce protests in the Upper House. The government’s stance made it clear that it was bent on implementing the laws at any cost. But it did not realize that farmers would protest the laws on such a large scale in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The most serious apprehensions were raised among the farmers with regard to the future of the law related to the mandis and Minimum Support Price (MSP). So, vociferous protests started in Punjab. For about three months, farmers sat on major dharnas there along with launching Rail roko (stop the trains) agitations. Subsequently, a nationwide bandh call was given in September 2020 with the demand to repeal the three laws. The maximum impact of the bandh was felt in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh (UP) and the Terai region of Uttarakhand. When the laws were still not repealed, the farmers gave a call to march to Delhi on November 26, 2020, and a nationwide bandh was called on December 8. The largest hordes of farmers started from Punjab and, braving all efforts of the Haryana Police to stop them, they reached on November 27 the Delhi borders, where the Delhi Police prevented them from entering Delhi. They started camping on the Singhu and Tikri borders of Delhi from that very day. On the other hand, the farmers reached the Ghazipur Border on November 29. The farmers have been sitting on dharnas on these Delhi borders ever since. In less than a week, it will be the first anniversary of the ongoing farmer protests on the Delhi borders against the farm laws. The movement has seen many ups and downs during this period.

There were 11 negotiations held between the government and the representatives of the united front of the farmer organizations from the time the farmers came on the Delhi borders until January 22, but the farmers remained adamant on their demand to repeal the laws. Meanwhile, the demand to legally guarantee MSP also gathered steam. During the tractor march in Delhi on January 26, 2021, after the talks broke down, farmers reached the Red Fort in large numbers and violence, too, erupted. It subsequently appeared that the movement would come to an end. But on the evening of January 28, the emotional outburst of Rakesh Tikait, the national spokesman of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), at Ghazipur border amidst the government’s strict stance gave the movement a fresh lease of life. The course that events took here established Ghazipur border overnight as the strongest centre of the farmers’ movement. And Rakesh Tikait became a tall leader of the movement and the farmers in the country. It was after this episode that the farmer organizations held farmer panchayats in Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, UP, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and West Bengal to gather support for the movement.

At the same time, no talks were held between the government and the farmers after January 22, 2021, and both maintained their respective stances. Meanwhile, some organizations had moved the Supreme Court (SC), in response to which the apex court issued an order on January 11, 2021, and stayed the implementation of the three laws till further order. The stay still continues. Besides, the SC constituted a four-member committee that would hold talks with the farmers and the parties concerned and submit its report to the court. One of its members, Bhupinder Singh Mann, resigned while the other three members — economist Ashok Gulati, agricultural expert Dr PK Joshi and Shetkari Sanghatana president Anil Ghanwat — submitted their report in a sealed envelope to the SC on March 19 within the stipulated time period. The three laws have not been applicable ever since the SC order. But what is significant is that even the government did not move the apex court to vacate the stay order. Rather, when the prices of pulses and edible oils increased, the government, despite advocating the new laws, resorted on several occasions to the provisions of the same old Essential Commodities Act that it had amended.

The government may not have been holding talks with the farmers on these laws but they constantly occupied the centre stage of politics in the country. The farmer organizations campaigned against the BJP in the West Bengal Assembly elections. And the BJP was trounced in these high-pitch elections. The opposition parties stood by the farmers all this while. Besides, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) held rallies in quick succession in the western districts of UP and farmers came to these in large numbers, thanks to their resentment with the government. Gradually, the BJP began to sense that it would have to suffer a political loss due to the movement, because the Jat-Muslim alliance, which had collapsed in the wake of the 2013 communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, began to take shape once again in western UP, which has 100-odd seats. The grand success of the farmer mahapanchayat held by the BKU and the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) at Muzaffarnagar on September 5, 2021, strengthened the movement and sealed the strength of the Jat-Muslim alliance.

Five states are scheduled to go to Assembly polls in February-March next. These include politically the most crucial state of UP, where the BJP is in power. Besides, Assembly elections will be held in Punjab and Uttarakhand, where the movement has its influence. Meanwhile, BJP also lost the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), its oldest ally, in Punjab thanks to these laws. The Akali Dal, too, is suffering huge political loss in Punjab on account of these laws because it was an ally of the BJP at the Centre when the laws were promulgated. Originally considered to be a party of the Jat farmers, the Akali Dal has paid a dear price for the deal. The BJP does not hope to put up a good performance in Punjab although it may try to recover its lost ground through an alliance with former Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh’s new party. Singh put the condition that he might ally with the BJP if the government repealed the laws. It is also true that the Sikh farmers of Punjab played the biggest role in the movement. The worry of alienating the Sikhs was also clearly visible to the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) if the movement continued. Amidst all this, the accusation that Ajay Mishra, a BJP leader and Minister of State for Home Affairs, was involved in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence added to the discomfort of the BJP and the RSS.

Given this situation, the BJP wants to avoid taking any risk in the UP elections as the road to power at the Centre in Delhi goes via UP. Besides, political corridors are abuzz with talks that it is not as easy for the BJP to regain power in UP as it makes it out to be. Huge crowds are gathering at the rallies of RLD president Jayant Chaudhary in the western part of the province while the Samajwadi Party (SP) president Akhilesh Yadav’s yatra is drawing huge crowds in the central and eastern parts.

Also, apart from these political events, the fact that there were no disputes between the constituents of the farmers’ movement and that it could maintain its unity and collective decision-making led to conditions that helped the movement continue. The farmer organizations constantly went on becoming more and more vocal against the BJP. In spite of the deaths of 700 farmers during the movement, the farmers’ movement continued to remain non-violent. The presence of farmers from MP continued in the movement along with those from Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and UP. Besides, the leadership of the movement distanced itself from political fora and did not lend its forum to the political parties either. This was one of the major reasons why the movement could be sustained.

These were the circumstances and equations that led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to use the Gurparab as an auspicious opportunity to announce that the three farm laws would be repealed.

This decision of the government will be interpreted variously in the days to come. The advocates of economic liberalisation have begun to call it the government’s suicidal U-turn and will call it a move that would retard the pace of economic reforms. Besides, any government in the future will think several times before making any decision on agricultural reforms. Many people did not even remotely expect a government with such a massive majority and strong leadership to repeal the laws. So, now that it has been decided to repeal the laws, people will talk of policy paralysis in the country. It is also being said that political opportunism has prevailed over economic decisions and growth. Pro-liberalization economists and the corporate world are especially worried about this decision. Some will even link the decision to a weakening of possibilities of foreign investment in India and will say that this won’t send the right message to the foreign investors. All sorts of talks, discussions and ideas of such a hue will continue to be aired for months to come. But it is also true that the impact of this decision will be felt on the policies and decisions of the country for decades.

But there is also something that people may discuss less but is a lesson from this decision nonetheless. There will be a change in the convention of how decisions are made when they have a bearing on a large section of the people in the country. The clout that bureaucracy and some of the experts had gained in policymaking and decision-making will now weaken. The government’s decision to repeal the laws proves that it is necessary for the parties that would be impacted by the decisions to be participants in policymaking and decision-making. In the case of these three farm laws, the largest party, viz. farmers, were not made a party to the legislative process. So, when the Prime Minister announced that the laws would be repealed, he also said that the government wanted to strengthen the MSP mechanism. A committee will be constituted for this purpose that will include the central government, state governments, farmers’ representatives, agricultural economists and agricultural experts. This is a positive signal.

Besides, it has become clear from this movement and its culmination in the repealing of the laws that is about to happen that there has been a rise of the farm lobby in the country in the form of farmer organizations. The degree of discipline and toughness manifested by the movement makes it apparent that this lobby will wield an influence on decisions and policies related to agriculture and the rural economy. Also, the kind of competition seen in lending political support to the movement is a signal that farmers will have a greater role to play in future politics. While the Punjab government has decided to give compensation to the farmers who were arrested in Delhi during the movement and announced the erection of a memorial for the farmers martyred in the movement, the chief minister of Telangana in the distant south has announced a compensation of three lakh rupees each to the families of the 700 farmers who were martyred in the movement. These decisions are enough to give an indication of future politics.

The days to come are crucial enough along with this entire course of events. The farmer organizations are continuing with their programmes even after the Prime Minister announced that the laws would be repealed. They say that they would carry on their dharnas until the process of repealing the laws is completed in the parliament. Besides, they are adamant about their demand for a legal guarantee to MSP. They say that the government should come up with a law on a legal guarantee to MSP in the coming session of Parliament starting November 29. They do not seem to be much assured with the Prime Minister’s announcement that a committee will be constituted on the MSP issue. This also sends the signal that the round of negotiations between the government and the farmer organizations that broke down in January may resume because the government has acceded to the farmers’ demand on the most contentious issue. Everyone is waiting to see how and when the longest farmers’ movement in the history of the country will come to an end even as the possibilities of its coming to an end have strengthened significantly. However, it will be clear only in the days to come if the decision to repeal the laws will come to the government’s advantage. It is certain nonetheless that the country now has a structure and leadership of farmers’ organizations to protect the farmers’ interests on issues related to them. And it has the strength to change the government’s decisions in the farmers’ interests.