Women-led protests in Shaheen Bagh in early 2020 and farmers’ protests on the outskirts of Delhi since the end of 2020, with the threat of disruptions to Republic Day celebrations, would not have occurred had their cases been dealt with inside Parliament. The ensuing, predictable protests were met with “imperious arrogance” rooted in hubris. Some of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark policy decisions were correct but badly flawed in the politics of mobilising public and political support and also badly implemented. Others have had design as well as implementation flaws. And still others were simply wrong on all counts. Regardless, they have all suffered from the pathology of maximum government, minimum governance. Habituated to adulation from adoring crowds, Modi doesn’t do humility and apologies.
“Modi hai to mumkin hai” cannot extinguish parliamentary conventions and etiquette. The modus operandi is to introduce momentous laws without advance consultations with stakeholders and opposition parties; enact them in both Houses in one to three days without referral to parliamentary committees; enforce them with the heavy hand of the state; conflate India with the ruling BJP and Modi, creating a personality cult in the process; delegitimise protesters as anti-national agitators, apologists for terrorists, Naxalites, and/or in the pockets of foreign paymasters; and be wilfully blind to the potential foreign policy implications of the actions until the damage has been done.
Three farm laws were passed in September to open up the agriculture sector to market forces and discipline, encourage scale economies by creating a national market, deregulate trade in agricultural produce and facilitate private investment (the Supreme Court has put implementation on hold). Labour, land, fertiliser and water productivity have to improve. The Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees, minimum support price, and public procurement system together make up the dominant rice and wheat regime for farmers. Their original purpose was to incentivise farmers to shift to high-yielding crop varieties of the Green Revolution, buffer them against price volatility and ensure food security for India’s masses after the droughts, food shortages and famines of the mid-1960s. The goals have been achieved and are now largely redundant. India today is a food surplus country and often, stocks in public granaries feed rats more than people. The perverse consequences include soil degradation, depleting aquifers, astronomical land prices in Punjab and neglect of other essential crops like pulses, oilseeds and fresh fruits to meet India’s nutritional needs.
The justification for dismantling the $25 billion regime is that liberalisation will empower farmers to avoid middlemen and APMC fees, expand their choices to market their produce and provide them with better remuneration. But a stable equilibrium of vested interests presents a formidable point of resistance to market-led deregulation. In recent years, the benefits of the subsidy schemes have spread geographically beyond Punjab to one-third of all states, 14-16% of farmers benefit from MSP and only 1-3% of paddy and wheat farmers cultivate over 10 hectares of land. The MSP-PPS-APMC regime is crucial for a reasonable, assured income to most of the 260 million farmers and farmhands in India’s agricultural sector. Farmers fear being left vulnerable to large and predatory agri-conglomerates that would use unequal market power to exploit them.
“Suit boot ki sarkar” was the one dig at Modi by Rahul Gandhi with both bite and legs because it fit the budding narrative of Gujarat-centric crony capitalism. Building a new socio-economic order will require the “politics of trust, credibility, inclusion and consensus building”. The government, acknowledging flaws in the three farming laws, has offered to make amendments but the farmers believe the laws are structurally flawed and must be repealed. The history of tax terrorism through retroactive changes to laws shows why farmers cannot depend on trust in government ‘assurances’ on MSP. Because of the government’s tone-deaf initial response, the demands have moved beyond MSP to repeal of the three farm Acts: law wapsi before ghar wapsi.
While the masses still retain trust that Modi acts in the long-term national interest, not for personal or family aggrandisement, he should reinvent ‘minimum government, maximum governance’.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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