As two of three important farm bills that seek to deregulate the sale of agricultural produce were passed in Rajya Sabha on Sunday, after all three were cleared by Lok Sabha earlier in the week, the story so far: Scenes of uproar and chaos amid an Opposition protest inside the Upper House, street agitations by farmers who are defying restrictions imposed by the pandemic in Punjab and Haryana, a walkout by the sole minister of one of the BJP’s oldest partners, SAD, from the NDA ministry. What should have been a moment to pause and prepare for moving towards a much-promised reform, is now one that ranges the intended beneficiaries against it, alongside the government’s political opponents and an ally. And for this disfigured and disfiguring moment, the government cannot blame the Opposition alone. While the opposition parties may be seizing the visible unrest in sections of the farmers to score a political point, the fact is that the government has wielded a bludgeon when it could have used the subtle powers of Parliament. In fact, the forcible ramming through of the farm bills, the stubborn refusal to concede any elbow room to the Opposition, be it a discussion, a division of votes or a reference to a select committee, underlines a sobering message — this government may be in its second term, but it does not appear to have as yet understood the importance of Parliament, and of playing by its rules.
In Parliament, and outside it too, it often seems that the government believes that the winner takes all. In a constitutional democracy, however, there are, there must be, checks and balances, spaces for the political opponent and respect for the minority. There must be an attempt to moderate differences and forge common ground — and the greater onus for this is on the government. Already, amid the pandemic, parliamentary schedules have been truncated. But if the government uses the abbreviated time only to push through legislation — be it the consequential and crucial farm bills or The Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2020, which could water down the rights and protections of workers in small establishments — giving short shrift to the need to listen to the suggestions of the people’s representatives or answer the Opposition’s questions, it would be reducing the nation’s highest deliberative forum to a mere clearing house. In an unprecedented pandemic, amid an economic downturn like no other, and with a grave face-off with China on the border, this short-circuiting of debate, and denial of the opportunity for MPs and Opposition to have their say, shrinks the possibilities of democracy to find a way out.
Of course, the farm bills do not merit the fears they appear to have stoked. Only the monopoly of the APMCs is sought to be dismantled, not the MSP regime. In any case, amid the pandemic, government will continue to be top procurer of agricultural produce, the bills will only put in place an enabling architecture for a later much-needed reform. This simple message needs to be communicated. But for it to be heard out, the government will first have to show that it is willing to listen.