A year since farmers first showed up at the gates of Delhi to protest against three new agriculture laws which were later put on hold by the Supreme Court, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Friday that the laws will be repealed and the process completed in the upcoming winter session of Parliament.
In an address to the nation, the Prime Minister said: “While apologising to the countrymen, today I want to say sincerely that perhaps there must have been some deficiency in our penance that we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to the farmer brothers (Mein aaj deshvaasiyon se kshama maangte huey, sachche mann se aur pavitra hriday se kehna chahata hoon ki shayad humaari tapasya mein hi koi kami rahi hogi jiske kaaran diye ke prakash jaisa satya kuchh kisan bhaiyon ko hum samjha nahin paye).”
“Today is the holy festival of Prakash Purab of Guru Nanak Dev ji. This is not the time to blame anyone. Today I want to tell you, the entire country, that we have decided to repeal all three agricultural laws. We will complete the constitutional process to repeal these three agricultural laws in the Parliament session that begins later this month,” he said.
The announcement, a rare climbdown by the Prime Minister whose government defended the laws and criticised those opposing them, was welcomed by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of 40 farm unions spearheading the protest. “Samyukt Kisan Morcha welcomes this decision and will wait for the announcement to take effect through due parliamentary procedures,” it said in a statement.
“The agitation of farmers is not just against the repeal of the three black laws, but also for a statutory guarantee to remunerative prices for all agricultural produce and for all farmers. This important demand of farmers is still pending,” the SKM said.
Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who led the government’s negotiations with the farm unions, welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to repeal the laws but said “I am sad that we were not successful in convincing some farmers about the benefit of these laws”. The Prime Minister’s intention behind these laws, he said, was to bring a “revolutionary change” in the lives of farmers.
Modi urged “all my agitating farmer companions” to “return to your homes, fields and to your families”, and said: “Let’s make a fresh start. Let’s move forward with a fresh beginning… Today, the government has taken another important decision related to the agriculture sector. A committee will be constituted to decide on matters like promotion of zero budgeting farming i.e. natural farming, scientifically change the crop pattern keeping in mind the changing requirements of the country and make MSP more effective and transparent.”
The committee, he said, will include representatives of the Central government, state governments, farmers, agricultural scientists and agricultural economists.
“Our government has been working in the interest of farmers and will continue to do so… Whatever I did, I did for the farmers and whatever I am doing, I am doing for the country,” he said.
He said the three agriculture laws — Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 — were “introduced as part of this great campaign to improve the condition of the farmers”.
“Our government brought in the new laws with a good intention, full sincerity and complete dedication for the welfare of farmers, especially for small farmers, in the interest of the agriculture and the country and for the bright future of the poor in villages. But we have not been able to explain to some farmers such a sacred thing which is absolutely pure and for the benefit of the farmers despite our efforts,” he said.
Within hours of the announcement, several senior BJP leaders said it would “transform the Prime Minister’s image into that of a benevolent and sensitive leader”.
At least five senior party leaders with whom The Indian Express spoke, including three leaders from Uttar Pradesh which is headed to polls early next year, said the leadership had taken into account “the sensitive security situation in the border state of Punjab where vested interests were taking advantage of the uneasiness among a section of farmers”.
The announcement, a party MP from UP said, would help the BJP regain ground in Punjab, Haryana and western UP where farmers have been demanding the repeal of the laws.
“In Punjab, the BJP has to build its own base, as we have been fighting elections in alliance with the Akali Dal. This announcement will keep the door open for an alliance with Capt Amarinder Singh (who left the Congress after being removed as Chief Minister). In UP, it will help us regain ground among the Jat community,” the MP said.
These leaders reasoned that the party could not afford to allow the uneasiness among Sikhs about the BJP and Modi’s leadership increase, and had decided to walk back on the farm laws in the national interest.
“With the situation in the India-China border areas becoming volatile and precarious, the party leadership had to take a call on the farm laws as vested interests have been trying to take advantage of the growing tensions in the border state (of Punjab). The Prime Minister has put the nation first,” another BJP leader from UP said.
On Wednesday, the Centre reopened the Kartarpur Corridor that had been shut after the outbreak of Covid-19. On Friday, BJP leaders were keen to talk about “Modi’s long-term connection with the Sikh community”, and the “close bond” that he had developed with Sikhs during his “few years of political work in Punjab and Chandigarh”.
The leaders recalled that “Sikhs and their holy books were rescued from Afghanistan” after the Taliban takeover, and that Modi had visited Gurdwara Rakabganj Sahib in New Delhi on the occasion marking the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur in December last year.
According to these leaders, the fact that Modi chose to step back despite the BJP’s comfortable majority in Lok Sabha and adequate support in Rajya Sabha, would take away the sting out of the Opposition’s plan to attack the government in the winter session.
“It will help the party to take the moral high ground before the elections. The message is this: despite the support for the laws from across the country and the (parliamentary) majority, Modiji is sensitive to people’s sentiments, and wants to take everyone along,” a BJP leader said.
However, two BJP leaders from UP, while agreeing that the Prime Minister had been “sensitive”, took a more nuanced view of his decision. One of them, an MLA, said: “In UP, it (the withdrawal of the farm laws) is not likely to have a lot of political impact, because the state has more smaller farmers and they would have benefitted from the farm laws. We have been campaigning across the country saying the farm laws were beneficial to small farmers. But we can say that the Prime Minister has taken a more democratic, sensitive, and statesman-like approach. For the BJP, the nation and its security come first.”