When Farm laws became Former laws and the lessons therein!

Guru Nanak Jayanti henceforth, will have an additional reason for celebration for many. Apart from celebrating the revered Sikh Guru on his birthday, the day will be also be remembered and celebrated for bringing Narendra Modi’s strong government down on his knees. This week on the day of Gurpurab, the Prime Minister chose to announce the repealing of the three farm laws which were meant to reform agriculture. This after almost 18 months of relentless protests by farmers mainly in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. That the government had to finally relent and nullify the laws is unfortunate.  From here on, it is going to be tougher for this government to push through reforms of any nature. The opposition and the other adversaries have smelt blood and have found the soft underbelly of this government and hence a template for pressurising this government.

Farmers celebrate after India’s Prime Minister announced to repeal three agricultural reform laws that sparked almost a year of huge protests by farmers across the country in Singhu on November 19, 2021. (Photo by Xavier Galiana / AFP) (Photo by XAVIER GALIANA/AFP via Getty Images)

This means that moving forward, the Government needs to be inventive and creative in pushing through contentious reforms and bills so that the same fiasco is not repeated. And here are some unsolicited, practical ideas to the government to help push path breaking but contentious reform bills:

  1. Say No to Ordinance: The word “Ordinance” immediately raises the antenna of the opposition and commentators in civil society who deride anything that is an ordinance. Even if it’s a legitimate cause, pushing it through the ordinance route, unnecessarily gives it a colour of conspiracy.  If the Government opted for the Ordinance route to save time, then it is ill intentioned. In India, in matters of reforms, we are used to passing laws after 10 years of debates and discussions. So, trying to cut a few months of time by opting for the ordinance route is not worthwhile. And as we have seen in the Land acquisition bill and now in the farm laws, ordinance route has not helped at all. Considering the fact that the government has a comfortable majority on its own in the lower house and can manage a majority in the upper house, it is wiser to table the laws in both the houses, do some discussion and pass them as laws legitimately.
  2. Roll the red carpet to “Select Committees”: Opposition parties have egos. And egos need to be massaged often. What’s the other better option for this than rolling out the red carpet to “Select Committees”? In your planning cycle for tabling a bill that is reformist in nature and which will attract the ire of the opposition, buffer in certain time for sending the bill to “Select Committees”. It is usually said that “When a government cannot commit, it committees!” I would say that even when a government is clear in its mind and can commit, it should “committee” so that the opposition feels that they have been consulted and the law has been passed after due process. Now the flip side of this is possible dilution of certain provisions which may distort the intent of the law itself as we saw in the case of the “Land Acquisition bill” which the UPA government passed.  Ultimately it has become an ineffective piece of legislation that is the reason for delays in many of the infrastructure projects that are underway. But here again, I would say that with the numbers on its side, the opinions and recommendations of the Select committees can be managed in its favour by the government and in case there are some genuine provisions that need correction, that is welcome.
  3. Head hunt key opposition leaders to be ambassadors: Most of the reforms that are being brought about by the government are long pending once that have been talked about for a long time now. So, in public domain we can always check if any key opposition leader had a favourable view on the subject. It is important to head hunt such leaders and co-opt them as ambassadors for the law by reaching out to them before the law is tabled in parliament. This will not only divide the opposition but will also help in influencing public opinion in favour of the intended reforms. For example, in the case of farm laws, it is known to all that Sharad Pawar when he was the Minister of Agriculture had talked in favour of some of the provisions in these laws. So when Pawar expressed his reservations on the farm bills, the first attempt of the ruling party leaders was to expose his hypocrisy. Instead of that, the government should have reached out to him and sought his support before the bills were tabled. He could also have been used to influence other parties and fence sitters could have been won over. This approach needs a bit of deft floor management and handling of the opposition which I feel is lacking with the Modi government presently.
  4. Cherry pick opinion leaders to influence opinion: During UPA-1, the nuclear bill which Manmohan Singh was personally championing got into rough weather when its own allies from the Left were opposing the bill tooth and nail. The principal opposition party then which was the BJP, also took an opposing view though it was NDA under Vajpayee rule that had sown the seeds for engagement with the US on the nuclear front. In a masterstroke that set the cat among the pigeons in the BJP camp, Sanjaya Baru the media advisor to Manmohan Singh then, reached out to Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor to Vajpayee and a vocal supporter of the nuclear bill. Brajesh Mishra came out openly in the press to support the nuclear bill which took the sting out of the BJP attack in the parliament and outside. The present government can take a page out of this play book and cherry pick opinion leaders from civil society to come out in the open to support the proposed reforms. While on this I must add here that many commentators who were in some point of time votaries of the farm bills turned their back and changed their opinion just because the reforms were brought by the Modi government.  This sort of exposed the intellectual dishonesty of such commentators and this is another reason why I advocate that it is important to cherry pick and co-opt some of these commentators who can influence public opinion.
  5. Debate and Debate: I have been reading that the farm laws were passed by the Modi government without any debate or discussions with the stake holders. A lie repeated often becomes the truth. This government might not have debated the bill in the floor of the house during this regime but the subject of agri reforms and the need to reform the APMC act have been discussed and debated enough since 2000. One has to just read this finely detailed paper titled “An intellectual biography of India’s new farm laws” by Gautam Chikarmane to understand the chronology and the journey of these laws. My proposal is, for future even if the need for a reform has been discussed many times, provision a few weeks for repeating the same in the parliament in your regime. Because in India, carrying out the debate in the floor of the parliament is supreme, notwithstanding the quality and the purpose it serves.

The government has its plate full in terms of the reforms agenda in the months to come.  Opposition parties and other interested parties can and will try to follow the SOP of the farm bills in derailing these reforms in the remainder of this term of the government. Therefore it is important that hard lessons are learnt to ensure that this government under Modi is not seen just as a harbinger of “former laws”!

Pic Courtesy: Forbes India