The repeal of the three farm laws is a politically astute move by the government and shows the BJP’s tenacious intent to remain in power beyond 2024. It is now for the farmer unions to tactically suspend the agitation and go back to the negotiating table, allowing space for the Prime Minister to deliver on his promises.
If not satisfied with the delivery, they could remobilise and return to Delhi borders six months before parliamentary elections in 2024. The parliament must also acknowledge the sacrifice of the 700 of those who died in the process to make the government reconcile to the will of the people. There are other demands that may be thorny, however.
There is a trenchant demand is for a legal MSP. Agitating farmers perceive it to mean that open-ended procurement will continue and to be extended for all the crops. In light of the 12th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) starting later this month — under whose aegis public stockholding limits remain contentious — even the promise of a legal MSP for all crops seems highly unlikely without exploring the challenges on its efficacy, design and scope of delivery.
There is no gainsaying that dialogue and not the use of the police to drive a wedge between the agitating unions and the farmers should have been the government’s chosen route for resolving an issue that involves a very large segment of the country’s populace. Such commitment to using the political process to negotiate a settlement would have spared Mr Narendra Modi this embarrassment. Indeed, the Prime Minister should take to task his advisors, responsible for mess that he is facing the flak for.
A perspective from the farm is pretty one; India has witnessed more farmer agitations in the last seven years than in the last 70 years put together. Meanwhile, the country faces the highest unemployed ever, even as the demonetisation and other policies play themselves out over seven years of continuously falling GDP.
Historically, across the world, a depressed farm sector has led people from rural areas to migrate to urban spaces in search of livelihood opportunities. The current dispensation has managed, possibly for the first time since the depopulation of the Roman Empire, a reverse migration from urban centres to the villages.
The majority of the population cannot afford a nutritious meal even as the country slides down in ranking under many social indicators such as malnutrition. The latest setback for the Modi government is to be viewed alongside a host of challenges that it faces.
The lack of demand for nutritious food and the impact of climate change puts India in a very precarious state. COP 26 has reaffirmed that the 1.5°C target will be breached and that the developed world will not pick up the tab or deliver on the Paris Climate Accord to help the most vulnerable nations adapt. This means that India must prepare to confront its worst fears. Even if concessions are made for least-developed nations in the WTO negotiations or in COP27, India will not qualify as a developing country.
In essence, the government is simply adrift having lost control of the fiscal, administrative and governance space. Bureaucratic apathy is at its peak and farmers, driven to despair have, unbelievably, resorted to looting fertilisers in broad daylight for the second time in the past few years.
Meanwhile, the establishment that was convinced that it knew what was best for the country’s citizens, without even trying to place a finger on the pulse of the citizenry, clearly continued to misdiagnose, falter and stumble as is borne by events of the past few years. The administration has shot itself in the foot so often in the recent past that it has become a habit; just as it has habitually undershot expectations.
Even so, this is not the time to get into a depressed sulk for if a state of underperformance has been created by poor policy, it can be undone by changing the approach to policy makings, which be put to the test as the government works towards repealing the farm laws. Most importantly, it is time for the PM to question the very assumptions that he worked on or the people that he trusted to sort out the mess, left by the previous regime.
The BJP has been good at changing the narrative but its IT cell failed to drive a nationwide hate campaign to discredit the farmers, as did its other attempts to distract the conversations to change the narrative. The PM now has to retune the party to the clear notes around the changed priorities. There is no reason to question the PM’s ability to accomplish something that he has set his heart and mind on.
It needs hardly be reiterated that this is not the “Shining India” phase for India anymore, even those a disparate opposition seems to be making things look good for the party in power. It is the country that is running out of time. The big question is what next?
Sadly, the reform momentum has been lost and a status quo is no longer acceptable nor even an option. The bureaucracy does not have the capacity nor inclination to design and implement a food-systems approach that considers human health and that of the planet as one. Yet that is as sound an idea as any other that global thinkers are setting great store by it. However, when the trust of the people is lost, even good ideas are bound to be opposed by those who have strong political aspirations and often are presented with a gullible public. The real challenge is not to satisfy the farmer’s union leaders but to secure the future.