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Farm laws: Modi has been taking decisions without consulting experts, stakeholders

By Ajit Singh*

In a surprise move, the Prime Minister of India in a video message that went live on the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti announced to scrap three contentious farm laws in the upcoming winter session of Parliament. These laws were notified in September last year but put on hold due to widespread opposition, especially by farmers from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana.
In a deeply polarized India, it was more than anticipated to see two kinds of reactions, discounting those Cabinet Ministers and government's mouthpieces for whom every decision is a masterstroke by their dear leader.
Some called it a victory of farmers who stood their ground in cold nights, under the scorching sun, continuing their resistance against an "autocratic" government that did not even shy away from using force, echoing propaganda to demonize the farmers' movement. They also declared the defeat of the mighty Modi-Shah bonhomie who miserably failed this time to corporatize the farming practices that would have helped their crony capitalist friends to suck up the agricultural profit, leaving the vulnerable farmers in misery and piles of huge debt to repay.
In a different camp, people showed remorse and criticized the government's decision to back off from its stance. They believed the farm laws would have revolutionized the agriculture sector, giving farmers freedom from the clutches of middlemen to sell their goods outside the mandi, and in the long run would have supported the annadata to adopt sustainable farming methods which in turn would have increased their revenues and helped them escape from the cycle of poverty.
The anger and expectations of this section is understandable. In the history of Independent India, BJP is only the second party after the Congress that managed to secure a majority twice in the Lok Sabha after a 25 year gap.
However, the fact is, the government is known for taking decisions without proper consultation with the stakeholders and independent policy experts. Five years back, on November 8, 2016, the government announced demonetization, which proved to be an economic blunder. India's GDP growth has been on a constant downward slope since Q4 FY17, and it plummeted to an 11-year low of 3.1% in Q4 FY20, just one month before when nationwide lockdown began in the last week of the same quarter.
Similarly, BJP's political decision to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A failed to accomplish any objectives. Tensions in Kashmir have returned to a boiling point. Targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits and non-Kashmiri residents are on the rise. The bloodbath has again forced families to flee from their homes in search of a new life like their closed ones did in the 1980s and 1990s.
The government's heavy-handed strategies against the Muslims of Kashmir has added fuel to fire. It was promised that scrapping the special status of the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir would lead to stability and progress in the Valley; on the contrary, two years since the controversial decision was made, defence experts have noted a sharp surge in militancy, as more locals are picking up guns to fight battles against the Indian state.
Both these decisions were projected as big, bold and decisive reforms in the right direction. However, due to lack of transparency and hastiness in decision making, these turned out to be hollow rhetoric which only helped BJP to garner votes in the Hindi heartland.
Consensus building is an important part of a democratic system. For a country like India where we have cultural, ethnic, religious, linguistic and other forms of diversity, it becomes necessary for the governments to engage in dialogue with people who will be most affected by decisions.
One is tempted to recall how in 1991 PV Narasimha Rao, then Prime Minister, defied popular opinion and embraced free market reforms. The brave decision gave a new impetus to India's economic momentum which was previously mocked at as Hindu rate of growth. This came at a time when India was still suffering from the hangover of socialism after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In 2005, the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh faced opposition from its own coalition partners and opposition parties, especially BJP, yet he went ahead with the Civil Nuclear Deal, signed between US and India. It proved to be one of the major initiatives by the then government that helped India to secure membership in three of the four Multilateral Export Control Regimes (MECR).
Those who are in support of the farm laws pick out these two incidents from the pages of history. They say, if these two Prime Ministers didn't give up to the pressure and demands of coalition dharma and took brave steps in the interest of the the nation, then why would a party enjoying full majority surrender to the frivolous demands of farmers and opposition.
Due to lack of transparency and hastiness, Modi's decisions turned out to be hollow rhetoric which only helped BJP garner votes in Hindi heartland
They tend to ignore one thing: that objections and criticisms of the policy decisions taken by the government in 1991 and 2005 didn't take the lives of hundreds of people. The massive farmers protest garnered world attention. 
The government on its part resorted to McCarthyite witch hunt even as blaming the farmers of  being guided by Khalistani groups, blamed of developing toolkits, fourth generation warfare or some global conspiracy to malign India's image on the international stage. It is difficult to understand why it did not initiate talks with the farmers or listen to them.
Now, as the government is on the backfoot, the farmer groups are trying their best to milk the situation for all it's worth. Sustainable agricultural reforms, not stagnation, alone can pave the way for a prosperous Indian economy. All one needs is an inclusive law, where all the affected parties are involved and have proper discussion in Parliament before passing any such laws. Voice vote amidst chaos is not democracy.
The withdrawal of the three farm laws is surely a political decision of BJP. Assembly elections are down the line next year, and to remain in power in Uttar Pradesh, which is also the nerve centre of Indian politics, it has to hold together the Jat votes of western UP that could have split among parties if they had gone ahead with these laws.
Be that as it may, backing down from implementing reforms has again established the well known fact that there is no alternative to discussion, debate and dissent in democracy. The government may get away or succeed sometimes in hampering the democratic process but I cannot take its majority support in the house for granted. It should know: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
---
*Hobbyist writer who has graduated in economics, sophomore in B Ed programme

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