The repeal of farm laws
On Friday, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced that the government would pilot the repeal of farm laws. This is undoubtedly a setback for the ruling dispensation, given that the PM had invested tremendous political capital in supporting the laws despite a sustained agitation against the move. But Mr Modi candidly acknowledged that the government had failed to convince a segment of the farmers about the value of the laws. Electoral imperatives — especially the upcoming polls in Punjab, and more importantly, Uttar Pradesh — appear to have played a key role in the decision. And the Bharatiya Janata Party probably calculated that the political costs of staying the course with the laws were greater than the costs that came with a rollback.
This newspaper continues to believe that the farm laws were an important economic step. There is little doubt that agriculture needs a fundamental transformation, including through more liberal markets and greater interface with industry – but the government could have gone about it differently, and with a more collaborative mindset. Instead the reforms were first effected through the ordinance route. Then, when the bills did come before Parliament, they were pushed through without sending them to a parliamentary committee, which would have led to political inputs, revision, and then a wider political buy-in. And finally, despite agriculture being a state subject, states were not consulted on the radical changes. The fallout of these saw the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lose its oldest political ally in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal. The laws also faced opposition from most states not ruled by the BJP, and, more importantly, from a coalition of farm groups. The opposition saw the coalescence of the interests of economic (agriculturists), religious (Sikhs), and caste (Jats) groups. Even though the government held a series of discussions with farm groups, it made no headway in the face of a maximalist position adopted by the latter. Meanwhile, the atmosphere was vitiated by the regime’s political supporters demonising the protesters, linking them with terror groups and separatists.
The episode throws up lessons. When it comes to contentious political economy questions, it is neither possible to reform by stealth nor through the power of a brute parliamentary majority. Listen to stakeholders, be inclusive, respect established legislative processes, recognise the diversity of India’s socioeconomic mosaic, and embrace the democratic spirit. That is the only way to govern India – else, even efforts to legislate well-meaning, and necessary laws may come to nought.