03 December 2021 15:33:48 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

The unexpected U-turn on farm laws

The debacle on farm laws is a lesson on how politically-sensitive reforms must not be handled.

In a move that took the nation by surprise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed the three controversial farm laws on November 19. On November 26, the farmers protesting celebrated the first anniversary of their protests in Lucknow. Though the farmers were relieved that their long-standing demand of repeal became a reality, they were steadfast in their other two demands — a legal guarantee for Minimum Support Prices and the scrapping of the Draft Electricity Law.

The repeal of the law was unexpected and went quite against the Modi government’s record of standing firm on its decisions. The farmer protests had been roiling the nation for the last one year and had been ebbing and flowing in this period. There were also signs of the movement losing steam, which already suffered from having a rather narrow geographical spread — it was only farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Western UP who had assembled at the protests sites. Though the protest movement had the support of farmers from all over the country and the protest itself had a uniquely North Indian and Punjabi character to it.

So why did Modi make this sudden U-turn, when he could have so easily continued to stare down at the protesters? The most obvious reasons trotted out by the commentariat was the upcoming elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The symbolism of the Prime Minister announcing the repeal of the laws on Guru Nanak Jayanti did not go unnoticed.

But it would be wrong to attribute the U-turn on such reductionist political reason. Yes, there was anger against the Modi government in Punjab and the Terai region of Western UP and the wound of the tragic Lakhimpur Kheri incident is yet to heal. But by viewing this decision through the narrow prism of electoral politics would be missing the complex issues at play here.

For the BJP, a loss in Punjab Assembly elections and reduced majority in UP are things it could take in its stride. After all, the BJP remains the strongest party in the country — both in terms of resources and power — and Modi himself remains the most popular leader in the country.

As academic and columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta remarked in a recent column, Modi perhaps couldn’t risk pushing through these reforms amidst an angry and sullen Sikh community. The long-term implications of that would have been severe on the body politic as history shows — the violent and tragic turbulence Punjab went though the 1980s is a reminder. So in that sense, Modi’s decision to repeal the laws looks eminently sensible.

The counterview

The decision predictably evoked howls of protest from sections of the media and the analyst community which had steadfastly supported the farm reforms. Some right wing commentators went so far as to wonder whether Modi would now reverse the decisions on Article 370 and the CAA. These reactions, to put it mildly, are extreme as there is no likelihood of that happening.

Another popular trope in the media is that the reversal of the farm laws will set the clock back on other crucial reforms and the government will now find it difficult to push them through. Again these fears are unfounded as the reforms on cards — public sector disinvestment (Air India, LIC stake sale), asset monetisation plan, labour reforms — will not evoke the kind of protests that the farm laws did.

The sporadic protests that these reforms are bound to provoke can be easily handled by the government. Besides by standing firm on the above mentioned reform measures, Modi can refurbish his image of being a tough and uncompromising leader.

Even in the politically sensitive labour reform code, the urban workers simply do not have the economic and social capital to sustain a long protest movement the way farmers did.

The way forward

The hurried passing of the farm laws, the year-long protests and their repeal should not end the movement towards farm reform. A regulatory and marketing system that was set up in the 1960s to boost food production at a time when the country was suffering from food shortages has run its course and is becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era where India has emerged as one of the top exporters of rice.

There are also some crucial environmental issues at stake here and moving away from a rice-wheat and bringing in more crop diversity have become imperative.

This perhaps the right time to re-imagine the whole agenda of farm reforms. As economist Sudha Narayanan mentioned in a recent article, a more States-led, decentralized, bottom up approach with the Centre playing the role of a facilitator is perhaps the best way forward.

The States have been pushing through crucial farm reforms – Telangana’s Rythu Bandhu scheme, Tamil Nadu’s Uzhavar Sandhai scheme and Odisha’s scheme to boost the output of millets — are some important examples. These schemes must be studied in detail to find out what has worked and what hasn’t.

Given the agro-climatic diversity of Indian agriculture, a top-heavy, one-size-fits-all approach to reform was perhaps was unsuited from the beginning. Agriculture’s share in the GDP has been declining over the years but the number of people dependent on it remains stubbornly high. This is in part due to the inability of the Indian economy to create viable jobs in the manufacturing and services sector.

When the lives and livelihoods of so many are at stake, it makes both economic and political sense for the Centre to take a consensual approach with the States playing a key role.