Surrender or tactical retreat?

| Updated on November 20, 2021

Farmers rejoice at at Ghazipur border, Delhi,   -  KAMAL NARANG

The Prime Minister’s move to repeal farm laws is politically astute, but a blow to farm reforms

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden announcement of repeal of the three farm laws against which farmers have laid a siege of Delhi for almost a year may be a politically astute move, but it is disappointing from a reforms standpoint. Political expediency has been prioritised over people’s interest because the three farm laws now sacrificed were actually designed to benefit small farmers, something that Modi himself, as also his colleagues, and the BJP, have been tom-tomming over the last year. Forces opposed to reforms are sure to take back the learning that aggressive mobilisation and sustained street protests can derail progressive policies, even where they have been initiated by a strong leader enjoying a brute majority in Parliament. In a perverse way, the BJP’s parliamentary majority seems to have contributed to the undoing of this major reform measure. The government was wrong in the first place to promote such a major reform in a labour-intensive and socially sensitive sector such as agriculture through ordinances, especially when the country was gripped by a pandemic. This was made worse when the Bills were rammed through Parliament against opposition even from the BJP’s own ally, the Akali Dal. A more considered, process-driven approach that took into account opposing voices would not have led to the current retreat where an important reform measure has been rolled back fully.

The political messaging of the repeal, though, is clear. The cultural overtones of the dramatic announcement on Guru Nanak Dev’s birth anniversary are only too evident. Equally obvious is the backdrop of the upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The political impact of the farm movement is undeniable across northern States. The BJP’s prospects look shaky in about 120 of the 403 Assembly seats in western UP. The Prime Minister is looking to cut his losses, if not convert them into wins.

That said, there are three major implications to the repeal. First, a rollback of a major reform measure does not send a positive signal for other impending reforms. The prospects for a resumption of farm reforms in the remaining part of this government’s tenure now appear to be zero. Second, a perception of a lack of sure-footedness in decision making can erode investor confidence at a time when the government is going all out to woo foreign investment. Finally, the image of the Prime Minister who is not readily swayed may change. Modi invested tremendous political capital on the farm laws in the last one year, and rightly so too. All that has now gone waste.

Published on November 19, 2021

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