Last week, after more than a year of refusing to negotiate with India’s thousands of protesting farmers, India’s ruling party caved in to the farmers’ demand and agreed to repeal three contentious laws that had caused the farmers to agitate.
Addressing the nation on the sacred occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the three farm laws which had caused prolonged mass protests by India’s farmers would be repealed in the coming session of Parliament.
The goal of the three farm laws, Modi pointed out, was to empower farmers, especially small farmers. The three statutes were intended and enacted for the benefit of farmers but, as Modi mournfully conceded, "We couldn't convince a section of farmers despite best efforts.”
Rakesh Tikait, leader of Bharatiya Kisan Union, an apex body representing farmers, was unmoved, quickly announcing that the ongoing anti-farm laws protest will be withdrawn but only after the three contentious legislations are repealed in Parliament and legal guarantee made on MSP (Minimum Support Price) for crops. Along with MSP, Tikait demanded that the government should be willing to talk to farmers on other issues as well. Importantly, he urged farmers not to engage in any premature celebrations, asking their struggle must continue until the aforesaid conditions are met.
The call to keep the protest going seems sustainable given that hundreds of farmers have been camping themselves on the outskirts of Delhi since Nov. 26, 2020, demanding that the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers' (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 be rolled back and a new law made to guarantee MSP for crops.
While the protest initially was broadly supported by the populace, it has subsequently dwindled owing to the hardships inflicted on the daily life of those residing in or commuting to Delhi. The takeover of public areas and the blocking of highways and the Capital Region’s key access arteries by protesters has disrupted supply lines of essential commodities and added to consumer misery, in turn becoming an eyesore to an already exhausted public, reeling under the damaging economic and psychosomatic effects of Corona.
On its part, the government stood its ground and stubbornly (even arrogantly) ignored the protests or the demands put forth by the protesters, while continuing to maintain that the laws are pro-farmer, and would help crop prices by freeing farmers from the clutches of middlemen.
So what caused the about turn? Especially given that the ruling party shut its eyes and ears to the daily hardship the protesting farmers endured, holding their ground day after day, regardless of the vagaries of weather ranging from extreme hot to cold. Over 600 protesters reportedly died over the length of the protest. Against the vast canvas of Indian customary mortality, and additional deaths caused by Corona, those farmers’ deaths presumably remain puny, nothing more than a wrinkle.
The decision to repeal the contentious laws therefore was hardly a response to farmers’ predicament or rooted in pathos.
There was reckoning of course that their half-hearted advocacy had failed to convince or convert the farmers or their leaders, who continue to believe that the farm legislations would upend the customary purchasing and selling structures and leave farmers at the mercy of powerful corporations.
The decision to repeal thus was more an outcome of political calculation than of principled reasoning. The unexpected loss of some of the ruling party nominees in states and territories directly under the ruling party was a seismic shock as it exposed its weakening hold on public support.
So once again politics seems to have trumped policy. The move to repeal is well-timed, occurring just ahead of upcoming elections in five states, with Punjab and Uttar Pradesh as the most consequential to keeping the Modi Government in power. As the farm protests were predicted to dent the BJP's electoral fortunes in western UP, while pushing it out of the race in Punjab, the decision to repeal is expected to soften to some extent the farmers’ grievances, enabling the ruling party to potentially form new alliances, such as with the recently ousted chief minister of Punjab, and to gain electoral edge at state and national level.
The response to the softened government stance has been mixed. While some commend the government for its decision to repeal the laws, others mourn the loss to agricultural progress from the decision to back down. But given the complexities of the farming sector, either way, there is no win-win situation. The dilemma is best summed up by Devangshu Datta. While the Modi government “has done the right thing in announcing the repeal of the three farm laws,” and “It was the only way to resolve a withering conflict,” it “doesn’t change the fact, however, that the farm laws by and large were reformist, good for Indian farmers.”
The repeal of the three farm laws, Datta continues, “leaves the economy worse off than before because of its political implications. Agriculture is inefficient, and needs reform. By legislating bad or unpopular laws and rolling them back implies that those issues will not be addressed for fear of sparking another agitation.”
There is one universal lesson from the Indian Kisan protest that governments and politicians everywhere can imbibe. In today’s highly charged partisan politics that plagues most democracies, political leaders need to appreciate that policy does not sell on merit but on messaging. For laws to become acceptable, manipulation and persuasion are indispensable to getting the contesting vested interests to fall in line with proposed enactments.
Democracy by its very nature depends on people’s support and goodwill. No matter how beneficial a policy, it goes nowhere if people fail to see it as beneficial. When political leaders in their arrogance decide to introduce laws without adequate public briefing and co-option, choppiness and ugly outcomes are to be expected.
A Modi in India or a Nancy Pelosi or a Joe Biden in America can make radical laws riding on their widest or slimmest of majority, but what they risk is public backlash, and reversal of their well-meaning laws at the hands of an unsparing protesting public.
(Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is an Indian American published author and opinion writer. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.)