Farm Bills Repeal Exposes Government's Communication Handicap Once Again
Every government since 1991 spoke of agricultural reforms but none dared to act.
Modi did, but perhaps, where his party failed was in building a narrative.
The Economist once wrote that the biggest power of the American president is the “bully pulpit” and the president should remain true to it. Seen from this light, the repeal of farm laws, to pacify protesters from mostly two states, has impacted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s credibility — more so, because the government held a high moral ground through the crisis.
The Prime Minister didn’t explain the reasons for the repeal, except that it was done for the national good. However, the development was not unexpected. As this columnist pointed out in a recent article, (Growth Brings In Fresh Challenges For The Modi Government) the farm laws were facing an uncertain future. To his credit, the Prime Minister didn’t take a roundabout way to kill the reforms, which was common in the past. He faced it with a resolve to do better.
However, to the majority of the people, politically divided economists and media commentators, agriculture is not the primary concern. Most are anticipating the weakening of the Prime Minister’s command, which is the biggest political equity of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). No one is more aware of it than Prime Minister Modi himself, and his brand of politics demands a quick recourse.
Failure In Opinion Building
Having said this, it's time for both the government and the BJP to take a serious look at their abilities or inadequacies in building opinion. As an overall trend, BJP has been exceptionally good in event-specific campaigning. On the flipside, such communication has low shelf-life and may even go wrong by creating disproportionate or unrealistic expectations.
To give one example, the sharpest criticism of farm law repeal came from BJP voters. Many expressed apprehensions in social media that the government might reintroduce Article 370 in Kashmir. Some called Indira Gandhi as the icon of a strong government. However, this opinion is far-fetched. Apart from proclaiming Emergency in 1975, all other decisions like nationalisation of the bank, insurance, coal etc, suited popular Leftist-socialist propaganda. Declaration of war against Pakistan in 1971 and helping liberate Bangladesh, was welcomed with huge fanfare in West Bengal.
She created Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale for narrow political gains and killed him when it backfired. The actions had hurt the religious sentiments of Sikhs. The fire didn’t stop at the unfortunate killing of Indira Gandhi. Punjab remained disturbed for over a decade and missed the industrialisation bus after liberalisation in 1991.
Thirty years on, India is still paying a price for these actions. Today, Punjab is trying to zealously protect its Food Corporation of India (popularly referred to as Food Corporation of Punjab) sponsored artificially inflated agri-income. The situation was capitalised by the Khalistani-Pakistani-global Left triangle. And, the entire anti-Modi brigade supported it for quick political gains.
In all probability by repealing the acts, the government had cut the common cord between the vested interests and common Sikhs and Jats, who are important for national security. A disturbed Punjab would have spoiled the country’s growth and security agenda in the face of dramatic changes in geopolitics on the northern and western borders since the pull-out of the US from Afghanistan.
The reforms were necessary. Every government spoke for it since 1991 but none dared to act. As UPA finance minister (2009-12), Pranab Mukherjee said that the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy and wheat became unsustainable. Since then, MSP on both commodities increased by over 75 per cent and only three states were reaping maximum benefits of FCI procurement.
Modi dared to act. He pulled brakes evidently at the question of national security. It will likely have very little impact on the Uttar Pradesh election, where BJP was already ahead in the race. It is debatable if the repeal of laws alone would be sufficient to ensure national security. However, the episode raised critical questions on BJP as well as the government’s communication expertise.
Why is an essentially Sikh-Jat protest, for protection of entitlements, known across the globe as ‘farmer protest’? Why low-cost rice farmers from West Bengal and Bihar — who do not get the benefit of high MSP offered by FCI — couldn’t be mobilised in support of the farm laws?
The protesters didn’t agree to the rule of law. They blocked a busy highway, beat up and even killed people. There were some reported crimes against women. The Supreme Court created a panel for negotiation with farmers. That didn’t work either. It was a case of street fighting by a few in a country of 140 crores and those street fighters got maximum media support. How?
Now that even the right-wingers are unhappy with the government’s climbdown, the traditional opponents of the Modi government started writing columns on failed reform opportunities. Check the series of coverage in Chinese mouthpiece Global Times and you will see the unmistakable similarity in the pattern.
How many newspaper op-eds do we see on China’s failures? Why did Indian commentators suddenly start comparing India’s growth with Bangladesh? Why were Bangladeshi papers so keen on ‘farmer protest’ in India? Which newspaper columns get reprinted there?
Antiquated Communication Skill
Communication wins wars and it is the winner that takes it all. At the peak of the Singur agitation in West Bengal, some noted human rights activists of the country called a press conference in Kolkata to explain why the production of small cars would cause traffic snarls and doom the West Bengal economy.
Tata Motors left Singur in 2008 with hundreds of ancillary companies. After the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the media focus shifted to the market failure of Tata Nano. That the state lost an automobile manufacturing ecosystem with easy export opportunities to eastern neighbours, went into oblivion. We were made to forget that Singur made West Bengal into a no-go zone for investors.
Opinion building is a craft. As in 2001, only 37 per cent of people in West Bengal had access to electricity against 55 per cent nationally. 'BIMARU' states like Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh had better records. In 2011, tea wage (cash) was Rs 86 a day, one-third of Kerala. But tonnes of newsprint were spent on growth and equality in West Bengal all through.
Complaining about the Leftist-socialist ecosystem, that too after remaining in power for seven years sounds comes close to the definition of 'whining'. The ability lies in counter-narrative and the BJP is failing miserably on that front. That’s why its support base is worried.
Rahul Gandhi often describes the Modi government as “Adani-Ambani Sarkar”. Did anyone point out that the UPA brought out a complex gas pricing formula that would have arguably helped Indian natural gas producers to the highest well-head price in the world? Shallow-water offshore gas might have earned more than the costly deep-water gas in Brazil.
UPA decided to implement the formula from 1 April 2014. The Modi government scrapped the decision and put forth a new formula that prevented wind-fall gains. Who would have benefitted if the old formula was allowed to prevail?
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