The Narendra Modi government was spot on in identifying two big areas, land and farm, for reforms early on in its first and second terms, respectively. But in a remarkable parallel, in both cases, it relied too much on its numerical strength and refused to do the heavy lifting of politics. In both cases, it trashed opposing voices and attributed to it motives that effectively derailed the discourse.
What the ruling establishment did not factor in – both in the first and second term – was that the proposed laws had to do with land. In the economy, it is just one of the three factors of production (along with labour and capital), but when it comes to emotion, is inextricably linked with individual identity.
Given that the BJP had an absolute majority – bigger in the second tenure than the first – it could have used its political capital to build a consensus, listen to the views of key stakeholders, and follow normative legislative procedures in a spirit of give and take. But both came in fast and sudden as ordinances; were legislated without many consultations with states, or those affected; and by evading the rigour of Parliamentary scrutiny – closer examination or vetting by a House panel.
In the case of land, the NDA government promulgated an ordinance on December 31, 2014, within a year of coming to power with absolute majority in May, to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, enacted by the UPA. It introduced key changes to expand the purpose for which land can be acquired without consent from landowners and undertaking social impact assessment.
Despite demands from other political parties including Congress that the Bill be referred to the Standing Committee of Parliament after being introduced in Lok Sabha on February 24, 2015, the government refused to budge. Had it been sent to a select committee or to the standing committee, temperatures would have immediately dropped.
Passed in Lok Sabha given BJP’s numbers, it was held back in Rajya Sabha; the ordinance was re-promulgated in April since it could not be passed in the first leg of the Budget session. Since the amendments were perceived to be favouring Corporate India, and a section of industrialists expressed disappointment over its uncertain fate, Rahul Gandhi’s ‘suit boot ki sarkar hai’ jibe too stuck. The ordinance was re-promulgated on May 30, 2015, but protests gathered momentum, and eventually Modi announced in August the Ordinance would not be reissued. It was allowed to lapse.
Clearly, few lessons were learnt. In the second term, the BJP government looked even more invincible; it could pass any Bill in Lok Sabha and ensure its passage in Rajya Sabha as well unlike in its first term. There was one big difference though – the Covid-19 pandemic which the whole country was grappling with.
The announcement on farm reforms by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 15 and packaged as a Covid relief measure, came at a time when ordinary Indians were not just reeling under loss of income following the national lockdown, but were fearful of the looming distress.
But in hindsight, this was clearly part of a plan. In just a fortnight, the government issued ordinances on June 3, 2020, bringing into effect three farm laws. From rooftops and terraces to District Magistrates offices, the resentment was brewing in the hinterlands of Punjab; by the time the Bills were introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 14, protests intensified in Punjab with rail roko and gheraos, and within two months of the President of India’s assent to the laws on September 27, 2020, the farmers had moved to Delhi borders Singhu and Tikri.
The farmers would not have marched to the national capital had the government not rammed the Bills in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha amidst opposition by many political parties. The two Houses cleared all three Bills in a week, without much debate and discussion. Opposition demands to refer the Bills to the standing committee were once again ignored. There were many concerns of farmers – like no recourse to courts on disputes with the private procurer and the perception that APMC mandis would be rendered unviable.
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