An administration that had rushed legislation through parliament, using its brute majority to stifle disagreement, and then stubbornly resisted all criticism of its laws, even in the face of major farmers’ agitation that besieged the national capital, had suddenly turned tail, reversing course for the first time on any issue in recent memory.
At one level, the reason for the government’s retreat is obviously political. Five Indian states are expected to go to the polls in February and March, and three of them – Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and to a lesser extent Uttarakhand – have been deeply affected by the agitation on the farm laws. Modi’s BJP party realised it was in grave difficulty, as farmers and civil society mobilised against them en masse. The political imperative to stop the haemorrhage of voters from the BJP dictated the move. Some believe it could yet save the day in the latter two states, where the BJP hopes it will help neutralise widespread anti-incumbency.
There may also be a strategic calculation with regard to Punjab’s Sikh farmers, a constituency Modi targeted during his recent visits to gurudwaras (Sikh places of worship) and by making the announcement on the most sacred day in the Sikh calendar, Gurpurab, the birthday of the faith’s founder, Guru Nanak. Many had expressed concern that the alienation of Sikhs, and the foolish attempts by ruling party apologists to demonise them as “Khalistanis”, could help revive the ashes of the old separatist movement, with which Pakistan has been seeking to stir up trouble through its sponsorship of Sikh militancy abroad. This may help heal the breach, especially with the Punjab elections looming.
Some saw in the prime minister’s statement a belated admission of error. But that is excessively generous to an administration that had attacked, arrested, and vilified the farmers, restricting their entry into Delhi through barricades, trenches and water cannons, and describing them as dupes, knaves and anti-nationals. The nation has not yet recovered from the brutal mowing down of four farmers by a union minister’s car during a recent farmers’ protest.
Previous attempts to make up for the government’s earlier failure to consult farmers – including promising to increase farm subsidies and minimum support prices for crops, plus reopening the Kartarpur corridor to a holy Sikh temple just across the border in Pakistan – failed to adequately reverse the damage done by its legislative haste in parliament.
Modi’s BJP used its majority to ride roughshod over disagreement, imperiously deal with farm unions and defend the laws with stubborn inflexibility. In the end, repeal was the only way out to prevent irreversible political damage.
The prime minister’s apology to the nation for his failure to convince farmers that the laws were in their interest comes at a time when the government has been faltering on all fronts. India is a price-sensitive country, and inflation has been rising steadily, in no small part because of the government’s extortionate taxes on fuel, which has had a knock-on effect on other commodities. Unemployment is at the highest levels ever recorded. Economic growth is still sputtering despite the government’s rhetoric.
This latest development will certainly puncture the image of infallibility that the acolytes of Moditva seek to convey. But it also shows how, on most big-ticket reforms, the BJP has proved unable to convince the nation or persuade the opposition of its initiatives, from labour laws to land acquisition. Its style of bulldozing laws through, with minimal discussion, no consultation with stakeholders, no reference of bills to the standing committees of parliament, and none of the persuasive lobbying that previous governments have sought to undertake to get new policies passed, has again come a cropper on the farm laws.
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Economic reformists are concerned that the farm laws retreat signals one more failure of reform efforts in the face of the short-term expediency that characterises Indian politics. In their view, it is a problem for India that a determined group of agitators defending their own vested interests can derail reforms that would benefit the economy as a whole. “Anyone who can assemble a few thousand people to block a national highway indefinitely can get their way against a majority government,” they grumble.
It is true that various development projects, from dams to high-speed railways, have been scuttled or interminably delayed by political opposition in various parts of the country. Land acquisition laws were already scrapped when even the ruling party’s supporters balked. Nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels faces intractable opposition from the people of every area where such plants are proposed to be installed. Construction activities face serious challenges from opponents of quarrying and sand mining. Environmental activists frequently file cases against new construction initiatives, which receive a sympathetic hearing from the judiciary and especially the National Green Tribunal.
But these challenges are inevitable in a fractious democracy where multiple political interests must be accommodated in a consultative process before any meaningful transformation is accomplished. The lesson the Modi government has learned is that democracy is not just about winning elections and assuming that gives you a licence to do as you please. Democracy is about what happens between elections – the constant process of contact, consultation and compromise through which democratic change is engineered. This is what the ruling party has proved inept at.
It is a pity that the Modi government learned this lesson seven years too late. The farm laws can be repealed, but no one can compensate for the 700 lives lost by protesters during their year-long satyagraha (resistance). And other egregious mistakes, ranging from the feckless folly of the disastrous demonetisation, which knocked two and a half per cent off India’s GDP growth, to the hasty and botched implementation of a much-needed Goods and Services Tax, which stalled subsequent efforts at growth, all had damaging consequences that cannot be undone.
It is also far from clear that repealing the laws will really restore the confidence of the farmers in the Modi government and arrest Sikh disaffection. It might at best slow down a steady slide in the ruling party’s popularity, with the 2024 general election just two and a half years away.
That a government that refused to retreat – even in the face of overwhelming evidence of its mistakes – has now done so, might embolden the opposition into demanding the repeal of other unpopular decisions, such as the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act which was widely seen as disempowering India’s Muslims.
The remaining two and a half years of the Modi government’s term promise to be challenging – and fraught.
Shashi Tharoor is an Indian former international diplomat, politician, writer and public intellectual who has been serving as member of parliament for Lok Sabha since 2009
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