Hundreds of farmers gave away their lives, nonstop media trials on farmers, social media outrage calling them terrorists and after unstoppable atrocities, when BJP realised they have nothing to gain but may lose in upcoming elections, Modi rolled back on farmer laws. More than 700 farmers have died and disparaging remarks were made against them by the PM, his cabinet colleagues and members of his party.
The laws meant for causing pain to farmers called for an unparalleled firestorm of protest in the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh and posed a real challenge to Modi. They had mobilised farmers and civil society in Sikh-majority Punjab and spread quickly to parts of Uttar Pradesh, states which will see key elections early next year. While Punjab may have been the epicentre of the turmoil, the political salience of the movement in UP made the government collapse. What got the BJP government into the muddle in the first place? And what is the way out, given the agitation is not yet called off?
The BJP, which had not imagined such a blowback, has been trying hard to mollify the Sikhs. Much of its executive meeting earlier this month was devoted to assuaging the community’s sentiments: increasing farm budget and crop prices, reopening a historic corridor to one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines in Pakistan, a fresh probe to punish the guilty in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Also, the government was clearly getting jittery about the growing alienation of the Sikh community over the laws.
They tried their level best not to withdraw the Bill right away and then enter into discussions with the farmers. Modi and BJP were all about politics and winning elections. In contrast, pure executive action like demonetisation or corona handling has been done far better by the govt. Some may say it’s because of the upcoming elections. Some may say farmers didn’t have the knowledge or literacy to comprehend them. Some may say farmers were made to believe and misdirected, whatever it is the government had to take back the legislation.
Post the approval of the cabinet, a Repeal Bill will be drafted in Krishi Bhawan and vetted by the Ministry of Law, once again following a straight-jacketed approach. The passage in the parliament is a certainty whatever noises the opposition may make. The farmers have done well to have placed their remaining demands on the table right away as conditional to calling off the agitation. Putting ego and technical advice of economists and agricultural experts aside, the Modi government will do well to broker a political solution.
The farmers have, however, not withdrawn their protest. They have been asking for a law to ensure minimum support price or MSP. The opposition parties and some farmer leaders have criticised the move as coming a bit too late. They see the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh early next year as having given an effect on PM Modi’s climb-down on the farm laws. A large section of farmers in UP has been protesting against the laws too.
The Farm Laws Repeal bill was passed in Lok Sabha within four minutes – it was tabled at 12:06 pm and passed by 12:10 pm amid opposition demands for a discussion. In Rajya Sabha, it was passed after a short discussion. Congress’s leader in the house Mallikarjun Kharge said all parties agreed on the bill and no one was opposed to it. The opposition claimed the government evaded a discussion to avoid the issue of minimum support price for farmers’ produce, which has been a key demand during their year-long agitation.
Farm union leaders may have deferred their “Sansad Chalo” call on 29 November, but the issue doesn’t seem to be getting over anytime soon, despite the Modi government’s big climb-down to repeal the three contentious farm laws. For, the statements coming from these union leaders suggest that they have already shifted their goalposts and now MSP can be the next big flashpoint. It’s hardly a surprise. For, the agitation has always been political.
The three agricultural laws would have eased rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm crops, which have protected farmers from the free market for decades. The legislation would have allowed them to sell privately to big agricultural businesses and supermarkets although many farmers have small landholdings and would have found it difficult to negotiate for fair prices. PM Modi initially stuck to his guns in pushing through the laws, but as the yearlong protests threatened to shake his party ahead of five state assembly elections, particularly in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, due next year, he finally caved. On Nov. 19, as India marked the birth anniversary of the founder of the Sikh faith, he vowed to repeal the laws, marking his biggest policy reversal since assuming power in 2014.
Sikhs make up a significant vote bloc in the Punjab, which is one of the provinces headed to polls. However, the farmers are pushing on with the rest of their demands, and the protests look set to continue. The administration has previously said it will find it difficult to adopt a minimum support price as it involves huge budgetary expenditure. The government currently has set minimum rates for about two dozen crops and buys mainly rice and wheat, at predetermined prices for its welfare programs.