The farm laws: The politics of the repeal
When the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government decided to bring in a set of reformist (and much required) farm laws which provoked fierce opposition from a set of stakeholders, it was an important political signal of commitment to economic reforms.
When the government decided that even if the passage of the laws created a popular agitation in a border state with a history of insurgency (Punjab); sparked the exit of one of its oldest politically allies (Akali Dal); created a blockade-like situation around the national Capital; expanded to neighbouring states (Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh); triggered violence on Republic Day (including at Red Fort); set off murmurs of discontent among members of the armed forces belonging to the same communities as those at the forefront of the protests (Sikhs and Jats); gave fresh ammunition to separatist forces (Khalistani groups), who then sought to leverage the discontent on the ground and mobilise resources; generated criticism from international quarters (remember Rihanna); and led to the largest, and longest, mass movement in recent Indian history, the laws were still worth pursuing, it was an even bigger signal of political determination.
And when the government decided that while it was willing to engage in talks, make concessions on the substance of the law, and even suspend it but not repeal it, under any circumstances, then it signalled that the political leadership had thrown all its weight and credibility behind a signature legislative and policy measure.
When the same government, then, announced on Friday that it will pilot the withdrawal of the laws, in deference to the concerns of those sections who opposed it, then it cannot but be interpreted as a political setback. And when a government not known for usually reversing major political, economic or legislative measures — irrespective of the extent of national or international opposition — does so, then it comes with an even deeper political significance.
That is why both the NDA government’s determination to pursue the farm laws, and now its decision to step back from the laws, marks one of the defining episodes of its seven-and-a-half tenure in power. It will have implications for both the future political direction of the establishment and of the Opposition in India.
It is important to first grasp the roots of the reversal. There are two explanations. Those partial to the government’s latest decision believe that it has changed course due to the rising alienation among Sikhs and the potential of separatist groups to stir up trouble — but this does not explain the timing of the decision, for rising Sikh anger has been a fact for over a year. And intelligence agencies have long warned that Delhi’s perceived insensitivity is becoming a propaganda tool used for radicalisation.
The second, more likely, explanation is the clear electoral imperative at play, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Anger against farm laws, but more generally against the government’s attitude to the farm protests, was spreading from west UP to the Terai, especially after Lakhimpur Kheri; internal feedback revealed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s carefully choreographed religious- and caste-based identity politics was slowly colliding with emerging class-based farmer solidarities. In Punjab, the BJP was looking at a washout. In Haryana, the Manohar Lal Khattar government was getting steadily weaker; and the language of coercion used by him and other government functionaries had made even the functioning of the State apparatus difficult in pockets. The political costs of staying the course with the laws were escalating. And there were no political rewards, for the gambit of framing the farm movement as a narrative of rich farmers and entitled intermediaries protecting their privilege versus small farmers who would benefit from the laws hadn’t struck a chord.
For the BJP then, dropping political pride and retreating on the laws, instead, could open up political possibilities. In west UP, Jat anger could be neutralised and Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait could even become a potential ally against the Jayant Chaudhary-Akhilesh Yadav duo. In Punjab, a BJP-Amarinder Singh-Akali Dal alliance would be possible, with all three fighting a battle for relevance. And in Haryana, suddenly, Dushyant Chautala (who was under pressure from his Jat base to leave the government) could get a breather and the Khattar government could remain stable and recover its credibility.
But for all of this to happen, the PM had to own the decision to withdraw the laws — and play up the one special card that had always served him well: Intent. If anyone has the political capital to do this, it is Narendra Modi. And that is why in his address, the PM focused on his government’s intent being noble even as he displayed humility and offered an apology for being unable to convince everyone of this. This, the party will hope, will be enough to win over constituencies which have been alienated, especially in UP.
But the implications go beyond immediate electoral calculations.
Oppositional politics usually has two operational routes in a democracy — through institutions, and outside institutions. The Parliament, the judiciary and the media provide institutional channels of checks and dissent. The expectation is that the government takes into account the issues and perspectives articulated through these channels at different stages of policymaking, from conception to execution. Even if the Opposition does not get its way, it then goes away feeling it has been heard and its core concerns have been taken into account.
The other route is outside institutions, and is increasingly preferred when constituencies opposing the government believe other democratic channels are closed. This takes the form of street agitations and mass movements (which are permissible and constitutional) and violence (which is impermissible and unconstitutional). The farm movement was largely non-violent, but did take the street route. And it succeeded. This has the potential of creating a precedent and encouraging other groups to adopt a similar path, outside established institutions.
Oppositional politics also has been divided on the best ideological route to take on the BJP. Challenging the ruling dispensation on its politics of religion has fetched limited dividends, primarily because the old politics of secularism is discredited. But there is a strong Left-wing impulse within both civil society and parliamentary parties, including the current Congress leadership, which will see in this episode a signal to step up its anti-reform politics. The process of privatisation, monetisation of assets, and a range of other economic measures which the government has in mind, will suddenly encounter more fierce opposition. That may not be good for either the economy or the country in the long-term — but that is a debate for another column.
On the other side, within the establishment, a fierce debate has broken out between the economic Right — which is unhappy with the reversal of reforms — and the partisan Right, which backs the government, irrespective of its decisions. If establishing a consensus on wider policy and economic issues becomes difficult, the BJP will be tempted to resort, even more, to the one strand in its politics which unites its disparate constituencies — more assertive Hindutva.
And, therefore, irrespective of immediate electoral implications, the reversal of the farm laws will alter politics in fundamental ways in the run-up to 2024.