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Pratyasha Rath

Farm sector reform has been a political hot potato for government after government even with the clear understanding of the deep malaise and stagnancy that defines it. The political repercussions of touching APMCs with their immense clout, has not been lost on any party and that was the primary reason why for decades it was only lip service that was being provided. 

The very attempt to drag Indian agriculture away from the 20th century through the three farm laws indicated immense moral courage on the part of the government. It was never going to be an easy walk and the split from the Akali Dal, an all-weather friend was the first indication of it. Despite that, the government continued to expend enormous political capital on passing the laws which again spoke to the intention and the importance of the legislations. 

Therefore, this climb-down after nearly two years comes as a radical and extremely unpopular move irrespective of which side of the political divide you find yourself in. For the people supporting the farmer protests, the delay has been way too long, and the conclusion still seems incomplete. Even after the address, there are reports stating that Singhu border will not be vacated till the government agrees to legally mandate MSP for crops. For the people standing for the farm laws, this has only reflected the indecisiveness and capitulation by a government holding an enormous majority to street intimidation and violence. 

The trade-off behind this decision seems to be made on two critical aspects. The first and the more obvious reason seems to be the real politic based reasons with elections in Punjab and UP round the corner. Punjab seems to be out of the grasp of BJP by a long shot, but the repealing of the laws seems to be non-negotiable for even a fighting chance with either the Akalis or ex-CM Amarinder Singh. Uttar Pradesh on the other hand, is a much closer and a much more critical fight, and the protest has been significant in the western belt of the state. There could have been some feedback from the ground which could have motivated this decision. 

The second and more significant reason seems to be the scary disconnect that the protests had created between the people of Punjab and particularly the Sikh population and the government. The level of disconnect could be gauged from the fact that even decisions around Covid vaccination in Punjab were influenced by the protests. Many people expressed hesitancy around vaccines because they believed it was a ploy of the government to derail the protests. This is just an example of the extreme mistrust at a population level which can be easily exploited into anger by actors standing against the territorial integrity of the state. 

The stamp of the Khalistan movement over these protests has been visible through the course of the past year both within and outside India. The protests acted as sunlight and shone on the major fault lines still existing in Punjab which could have repercussions not just on the territorial but on the civilizational continuity of the country. Repealing the bills will perhaps not do much to thwart these attempts at radicalization but maybe able to buy the government and the country some time. 

But while these two long term considerations of political and territorial safety seem to have motivated these decisions, there are other long-term losses that the government has to make peace with. 

The first major loss is for the farmers of the country, particularly the farmers with small landholdings and less than surplus produce, who have been at the mercy of middlemen. The laws were aimed at empowering these farmers by allowing them to access the private market directly, balance out their negotiating power and work towards an increase in income. The conversation has been stolen by a much smaller and more much economically influential clique of farmer leaders and has taken away this opportunity from the hands of the average farmer from across other areas of the country. But more than that, the power equations resting on APMCs have yet again proved to be more significant than the need for reform. It was already known but now it is tested and validated, that agricultural reforms while necessary for the country can never happen without loss of political capital. And if a party with 303 seats and immense support across the country could not get it done, no one else would need to touch this hot potato. 

The second significant loss is on the precedent that this process identifies for any reform agenda or any socio-economic legislation at that. During the heydays of the CAA protests, eminent intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta had spoken of the way ahead being charted not through the ‘formalism of law’ but through the ‘brute power of the mob’. His incendiary words have somehow been taken to conclusion by the government which has now established that the one who can create the maximum nuisance value is the one who can determine the socio-economic agenda in this country. A parliamentary democracy is now choosing street mobs who have not even shied away from violence, as the primary opposition. It is a veto of street power and intimidation, of blocking streets, causing violence, of attacking cops and it has been normalized as legitimate and even meaningful. In the months and years ahead, this is the template that will be followed by every interest group, and we can expect competitive anarchy playing out on the streets. The government has paved way for that to happen. 

Through this whole mess, another factor that will play out over time is the narrative that is synonymous with Brand Modi. The government has already started work on projecting this as a statesman like climb down instead of a loss of face. The argument is that this is a tactical move which looks at stemming brewing unrest even at the cost of immediate losses. But for a large section of people, it is difficult to absorb this argument at face value and still indicates a move away from the one of the most valued aspects of Brand Modi- decisiveness. 

The government has either tactically or helplessly picked up many small battles which it will now have to take on through this precedent that it has set. All this if aimed towards avoiding a more sinister civilizational war and a 2.5 front attack on the territorial integrity of the country can perhaps be understood but will take time and persuasion to accept. The immediate battle is to make the farmers move away from the Singhu border who after tasting blood through this capitulation, have decided to continue protesting for even more disastrous outcomes. At the same time, there will be a need to communicate to the more devoted voter base and party workers about the reason behind this climb down and reassert the conviction towards the reform agenda and importantly towards anarchic street vetoes. 

For the farmers of the country, the best bet would continue to be mobilizing at the ground level through farmer producer organizations to build on their bargaining power. This is the antidote to the concentrated power in APMCs which will continue to work in favour of a few. It is a tall task but hopefully, the government will still stand committed to change with or without the laws.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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