Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 460, 25 November 2021

India: Electoral calculations prevail over farmers' concerns
Alok K Gupta

In the news
On 19 November, on the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the three farm laws would be repealed. The decision came after one year of massive protests by different farmers' organizations (especially from Punjab and Haryana) in and around Delhi, under the umbrella of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), since 26 November 2020, calling for the repeal of those laws. Modi claimed that though the farm laws were meant to strengthen the small farmers, all efforts of the government to convince them about the benefits had failed.

On the same day, the SKM welcomed the repeal but indicated that it would raise the other pending demands like legalization of Minimum Support Price (MSP). Meanwhile, those who supported laws called it an 'unfortunate decision' influenced by political considerations.

Issues at large
First, repeal as a tactical retreat. The announcement was a complete surprise as the government did not take any initiative over the recent past months. Eleven rounds of negotiations were held between the 29 representatives of farmer's unions and government ministers, in the initial stages of the protests; however, a stalemate continued after the last round in January 2021. Therefore, the government's announcement of annulment after nearly ten months, smacks of political compulsions and a strategic move rather than concerns for farmers' interests.  

Second, confusing signals from and within the government. Especially when all the satraps of government were steadfastly insisting that the laws were good for farmers and would never be rolled back. How could government intentions melt from a tough stand? It means the government also knew that the laws were tuned more to protect interest of agri-businesses rather than farmers. Hence, they stand to lose before the farmers.

Third, protests and the political cost. The roll-back has been announced amidst impending elections in five States over next year. Elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are already heating up which may have forced the government to take a U-turn. Punjab and UP are states with huge base of farmers, with the former being the core driving force of the agitation. Farmers from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, also participated in the protests, and those from other states lent their support. Guru Nanak Jayanti was chosen to underline concessions to Sikh communities. Hence, roll-back is motivated by escalating political costs.

Fourth, the government's efforts to decimate the protest. The government roped in police to remove the protestors unsuccessfully from Delhi-UP borders. Farmers, too, went on the back foot when internal dissensions erupted owing to the storming of Red Fort on 26 January 26. All divisive political efforts were made to liquidate the protests. However, the farmers galvanized themselves with fresh energy to sustain the protest further. Roll-back of laws thus is more on account of electoral imperatives than concerns for farmers.

Fifth, the suspension of the laws. The Supreme Court had placed a stay on the implementation of the three laws on 12 January, which were promulgated as an ordinance on 5 June 2020. Hence these were in force for only 221 days. The government then imposed a stock limit under the Essential Commodities Act 1955. Hence, the announcement is immaterial as the laws were under suspension; yet a U-turn will help the government towards smooth conduct of the winter session of Parliament; and ensure mitigation of calculated electoral loss in the immediate future.    

In perspective
Repeals seem to be a huge jolt to the government and cudgels into the hands of the opposition. First, agricultural marketing reforms have been pending for a long to facilitate farmers their due. The central government legislated on a state subject. Erstwhile attempts at reforming Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Acts of the state had failed, which prompted the Centre to enact. Once again, the laws have been rolled back. Second, this is the second roll-back of this government, the first being the Land Acquisition Reforms of 2015. Both were related to farmers. It may motivate CAA and Asset monetization. Third, these laws were the third tranche under Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan to support ailing economy during COVID 19, according to the government. Hence, a big jolt to Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan too.   Congress-I, Trinamool, AAP, and others who lent their support were being castigated as against national interest will now use their narratives of the ruling party being anti-farmer to capitalize on popular sentiments.  

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