Why Are The Three Farm Laws Being Repealed?

Why Are The Three Farm Laws Being Repealed?

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Friday, November 19, 2021 08:02 PM IST
Why Are The Three Farm Laws Being Repealed?A protest against the farm laws (Twitter)
  • PM Modi's operating policy has always been that, to those who understand no explanation is necessary, while to those who don’t, none is possible.

    So, why did he concede the government's 'inability' to convince the protesting 'farmers' of the benefits of the three farm laws and repeal them altogether?

    Here is a list of the probable reasons.

Prime Minister Modi’s public announcement, that the three farm laws would be repealed in the forthcoming winter session of parliament, came as a bolt from the blue to all. His detractors, though startled, were jubilant. For them, this was a huge victory, even if after a fairly sordid, persistent series of violent agitations, which included rapes, murders, a shocking desecration of the Red Fort, the blockage of key intersections for over a year, and a triggering of the Wuhan virus epidemic’s second wave.

Here at last, they tittered, was the climb down they’d forced; Modi had capitulated. This was the triumph of right over wrong, good over evil, perseverance over arrogance, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

On the other side of the fence, Modi’s supporters were despondent. They felt let down, after having spent a long and turbulent year, patiently explaining that the three laws were good, not bad; and progressive, not regressive.

The announcement was made at 9 AM. By 9:30, the internet was ablaze. By 10 AM, every politician, activist and journalist worth his or her salt was providing furious commentary on the decision. But not one distinguished soul knew why this decision had been taken. Those who’d stood against the three laws didn’t need to know, and those who had stood with it, didn’t want to know. And with that, both sides of the fence went into Ostrich mode.

That left the analysts scratching their heads, trying to figure out a genuine puzzle: why did Modi take this decision? The spectrum of possibilities was enormous, but in the absence of verified information, there was no way of deciding who was right and who was wrong. Every suggestion was as speculative as the next.

At a loss, this writer decided to tap into a few, well-placed sources that had always provided excellent insights into official decision-making. The responses were instructive: without exception, soft, polite voices sheepishly replied that they simply hadn’t a clue!

Obviously, then, this decision had been taken at the highest level, with consultations limited to extremely selected quarters. That posed a cleft-stick situation: to speculate on this development now meant running the risk of looking rather ignorant, foolish, or both (a terrible combination). However, to not comment meant being untrue to one’s salt, or seemingly tentative, or both (an equally terrible combination).

Thus, in the absence of any confirmation on intent, the via media is to list the pantheon of likelihoods, and apply a probabilistic assessment. It ranges from electoral, political, geopolitical, tactical and strategic, to pragmatism, concession and idealism, with a lot in between.

Modi’s own stated reasoning for the repeal is that it was done keeping the broader general interest in mind, because he was unable to convince ‘a section of farmers’ on the virtues of the three laws. He also said, rather curiously, that while the laws were brought for farmers, they were being withdrawn in the interests of the nation.

But the ‘inability to convince’ argument doesn’t fly because Modi, as Chief Minister, and in the wake of 2002, never bothered to convince anyone about anything. His convictions were enough for him, and the electorate. Nothing changed when he moved to Delhi; he rarely explained his actions, be it that surprise visit to Nawaz Sharif’s ancestral home in December 2015, or plugging Trump in Houston, demonetization, the surgical strikes, or changing chief ministers from his own party. The operating policy has always been that, to those who understand no explanation is necessary, while to those who don’t, none is possible.

So why explain now? Why concede an inability to convince those who would never be convinced?

Is it an electoral move? Perhaps; but only partially, even if it is that. The BJP looked set to sweep Uttar Pradesh in spite of the so-called farmers’ agitation, so there is no benefit in climbing down thus. They are presently the smallest political force in the Punjab, and while the repeal offers them an opportunity to tie up once again with the Akali Dal, plus take Captain Amarinder Singh on board, it appears too high a political cost to pay for such a small political prize. You don’t dent yourself nationally to win locally.

Is it statesmanship? Not in a month of Sundays, because his opponents don’t give a fig for the farm laws; they just want him gone come hell or high water, preferably yesterday, so if it is not the farm laws today, it will be something else tomorrow.

Is it a tactical withdrawal? As Swarajya’s R. Jagannathan writes, this is about discretion being the better part of valour, and marks the third time Modi has had to back off. The two earlier occasions were the aborted land reform bill, and the National Judicial Appointments Commission which the courts struck down. This ties in with word on the street, that some important bills might be tabled in the forthcoming winter session of parliament, but without corroboration, these whispers remain purely speculative.

Is it a mistake? Maybe it is, but there again, the original question comes up: why? We are looking for motive here, in the absence of which, value judgments are misplaced; which also means that we can’t term it a shrewd political move either.

In which case, does this mean a slow-down on reforms? Is Modi going to limp through the remaining half of his tenure, as some hope, and others fear, crafting half measures with half effect?

No, because make no mistake, this repeal is a move. Modi’s eyes did narrow at times during his morning broadcast, and that’s always an indicator of deep intent. We just don’t know what for, just yet.

That inference presents us with another possibility – of a hot winter (no elaboration necessary for those who understand). It cannot be discounted, because push has been coming to shove for some time now, and any canny government would want to calm tempers in border states first, before a balloon is floated somewhere. The move also ties in with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s recent statement, about civil society being a new frontier of war (yes, he used those exact words), which could be subverted to harm a nation.

Nonetheless, while the bottom line is that we don’t yet know why exactly Modi chose to repeal the farm laws, this much is clear:

Modi’s detractors shouldn’t exult at the repeal, just as his supporters shouldn’t get disheartened, because everything we know about the man tells us that a centennial cleaning of the swamp he has initiated will continue. Rather, his opponents should be concerned about what comes next, while those who voted for him should quietly keep the faith. A new phase in Indian politics is about to begin.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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