Farm laws are history, now it's time for politics

Farm laws are history, now it's time for politics

A rattled govt wanted to put an end to the spectacle of protesting farmers

Credit: Sajith Kumar

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on November 19 that his government would be repealing the three contentious farm laws, he was virtually killing dead laws as the Supreme Court had put a stay on them in January this year.

But as expected from someone like Modi, there was a buzz around the announcement which was dramatic (the PM choosing to address the nation), had the element of surprise (almost no one knew it was coming) and full of symbolism (it was Guru Nanak Jayanti).

In his address, Modi regretted that his government “could not convince” the farmers of the laws’ benefits.

Having used every trick in its playbook to undermine the protests, the BJP was suddenly at pains to explain how the Modi government, with numbers on its side, cared for farmers.

The other narrative from the BJP was that the move was to preserve the national interest and address a growing feeling of alienation among Sikhs, which some felt could affect the party’s chances in Punjab.

While the decision does give a good talking point to former Congress chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who is said to be eyeing a tie-up with the saffron party post his unceremonious ouster from the hot seat, experts doubt if this will work out for the BJP in a big way in Punjab.

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However, the future is pregnant with possibilities. The BJP’s oldest ally, Shiromani Akali Dal, which quit the Modi government over the farm laws, has ruled out a return, but as they say: there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests.

No one can predict the post-poll scenario in case Punjab elections throw a hung house. It is significant to know that barring farm bills, there was no bone of contention between the SAD and the BJP.

Modi’s decision also takes away the tension between BJP and its ally Dushyant Chautala-led JJP in Haryana, which heavily leans on farmers. The saffron party’s ally in Rajasthan, the RLP, which had earlier walked out of NDA over farm bill issues last year, can also come back to it.

Modi’s nuanced apology sought to give a message that he could not push through the farm reforms as protesters were provoked by the Opposition into believing that the new laws are not in their favour. He added that the government does not want to push further if the farmers do not want the same.

The Opposition, however, went to town over it, saying how farmers forced the BJP to “capitulate”, and that ruling party got unnerved fearing huge electoral losses. Opposition parties argued that the central government withdrew the laws after suffering losses in the Assembly bypolls and was desperate to prevent a replay of the same in the upcoming state polls in UP, Punjab and Uttarakhand.

The aggression with which the entire Union Cabinet and BJP’s foot soldiers not only defended the laws but also slammed the agitators for a year, only to withdraw them suddenly in “national interest” did not go unnoticed. Nor was the timing: the development came just months before polls in agrarian states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Clearly, a rattled government wanted to put an end to the spectacle of protesting farmers ensconced at the borders of both poll-going states (UP and Punjab). Also, the memory of farmer leaders having taken their protest to West Bengal during the Assembly elections, asking people not to vote for the BJP, must have lingered in the minds of the decision makers.

Now, these two possibilities seem to have gone out of the window, offering the BJP a chance to reestablish dialogue with its constituencies.

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With farm laws in the political dustbin, it will be impossible to maintain the momentum of protests for five months when elections are held.

Political analyst Badri Narayan says the BJP can now rework its narrative in UP, particularly Western UP, where it had derailed owing to the farm protest.

“A section of farmers in the region, which sympathised with the BJP but was angry over the farm laws, will now give a hearing to the saffron party,” said Narayan, who is also an author from the Hindi belt.

“The interaction will begin as they will be now ready to listen to the BJP. So, in a way there is definitely a gain to the BJP but how much it manages to milk this advantage will depend on its efforts.”

The farm protest had brought a semblance of unity, with parties overlooking the communal divide, and appeared working to the benefit of Jat party Rashtriya Lok Dal, whose leader Jayant Singh is the grandson of former prime minister late Chaudhary Charan Singh and son of former Union Minister late Ajit Singh. Singh has entered into an alliance with the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and both young leaders are making attempts to extend their appeal beyond their communities — Jat and Yadavs.

The ghastly incident in Lakhimpur Kheri only added fuel to the farm laws’ fire. Several farmers were mowed down allegedly by a car being driven by the son of Union minister Ajay Mishra in October. Protests followed; Opposition beat the drum of government callousness; Supreme Court intervened.

Sensing a big political fallout, the government went into damage control and finally arrested Mishra’s son. The withdrawal of farm laws followed soon after.

It seems that the saffron party and the Modi government finally came to realise a bitter truth: pressing on with the laws in the name of agricultural reforms is not taking them anywhere; worse, it is giving the Opposition to beat it with ‘anti-farmer’ stick, a tag which has been hurled at the Modi government ever since it came to power in 2014.

The farm laws were the third major occasion when the BJP had an unpleasant face off with farmers (The first being the contentious land ordinance, which it pushed months after coming to power in 2014).

The controversial ordinance sought to bring changes in nine key provisions including consent clause, social impact assessment, replacing the term private company with private entity that were part of 2013 Land Acquisition Act.

Eight months later, it withdrew six of the nine amendments through a Parliamentary panel headed by BJP MP S S Ahluwalia on the back of months of protests by different farm groups and Opposition parties.

Interestingly, that climb down happened months before Assembly polls in Bihar, a sign that the BJP only buckles when polls are staring in its face. However, that U-turn didn’t fetch any gains for the party in Bihar as a united Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar-Congress alliance defeated the BJP.

Politics over the farm bill withdrawal will only heat up before the Winter Session of Parliament beginning November 29. With the farm laws buried, the BJP will gear up to counter the Opposition narrative.

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