Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to repeal the three farm laws is immensely welcome, his announcement on Gurpurab is fitting. More than the farmers’ victory or government’s defeat, it sends out a message that the government is listening, or rather, that the PM has been compelled to do so by the people.
Because the farmers are the people, despite all efforts by senior ministers, the ruling establishment’s army of trolls and spinmeisters to paint them as the “Other” — as puppets of the propagandist Left or as Khalistanis, as anti-national and pampered tractor-borne elites stalling reforms, peddlers of anarchy, or as the PM himself called them, “aandolanjeevi”. Today, the Modi government has done well to acknowledge that laws are not as good as their enforcement by state machinery, but only as good as their capacity to win people’s trust — a well-timed upending of the thesis proposed only days ago by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. The Centre’s farm laws were a much-needed attempt to address the stasis in agriculture by ensuring that farmers get the right price for produce, and have the freedom to sell where they want to. But, as this newspaper repeatedly underlined, the crisis began with the way in which the reforms were pushed through. The government brought them in through ordinance, amid a pandemic, and then turned away from the popular clamour that rose on the back of farmers’ insecurities about their perceived pro-corporate tilt, when it was not unleashing police on the protesters. The inconclusive 11 rounds of talks with farm union leaders were initiated too late. By that time, the farmers’ movement had dug its feet well into the ground in farms and households across Punjab and Haryana. The court’s intervention also misread the agitation — to a political problem, the solution had to come from politics.
The government’s retreat may have been a response to the approach of another round of state elections. These include Punjab, where the BJP is in a lonely corner, and UP, where the mowing down of four farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri had created possibilities of a spillover of the farm issue into the electoral campaign. Or it could be that the government had to heed a larger message that the mostly peaceful farmers’ mobilisation had brought to Delhi’s door — even a party that thrives on polarisation cannot afford to range “us” against “them, the farmers”. The farmer is much too evocative and resonant a symbol. Even in an industrialising economy and urbanising country, it belongs to the very centre of the national imagination. The message is also this: No government at the Centre, even one that revels in a majoritarian politics, can let a minority like the Sikhs, the majority in a border state where victory against a separatist movement has brought a hardwon peace, feel disrespected.
In the end, it is not important why the government retreated. It is important that it knows that in a democracy, winning a majority is not enough. It is only the beginning of the work of governance, which calls for persuasion. Pushing economic reforms, especially those that upend long-held assumptions, needs hard work and humility. Neither self-serving lectures nor flaunting Lok Sabha numbers will do. With the PM promising that laws which began as an ordinance will be laid to rest in Parliament, it’s a good day for democracy.