There will be predictable ~ and polarised ~ reactions to the announcement by the Prime Minister that his government has decided to repeal three controversial farm laws that had drawn an angry response from farmers over the past year or more.
While critics will fault Mr Modi for taking as long as he did to recognise the reality that these laws were unacceptable to farmers across north India, and cynics will argue that the decision was prompted by fears of reverses in upcoming elections to important states, principally Uttar Pradesh, his supporters will praise his pragmatism and his resolve to do, ultimately, what is best for a large and heterogeneous community that found common cause in its opposition to the laws.
There are elements of truth in each of these reactions, but the overarching truth must be it was an act of considerable political bravery to accept that the decision to promulgate the laws was ill-advised. As the Prime Minister made clear in his address to the nation, the laws were being repealed not because he believed they were wrong, or that they would not benefit the small farmers who form a bulk of the community, but because the government had failed to convince farmers that the changes would help them.
If the ruler of the day is prepared to accept there is divergence between his thoughts and the views of intended beneficiaries, and is prepared to step back, democracy, to that extent, must be said to work.
It must therefore be fairly conceded that in ensuring this engagement, which for the most part was democratic, reached the conclusion it did, the Prime Minister conducted himself with grace. The major criticism against the legislations was that they were enacted in a hurry and without adequate consultation. Presumably, there will now be widespread consultations between stakeholders before any farm reforms are attempted.
One thing, though, is clear; farmers who took to the streets were unwilling to compromise, or to accept a partial rollback ~ as the government might have expected – but stuck to their demand that the laws be repealed. This obduracy was substantially responsible for the acceptance of their demand. While there will be those who will vow to continue their protest until the legislative formality is over, farmers ought to accept the Prime Minister’s word and get back to their lives. The timing of the announcement ~ on Gurpurab ~ suggests that the process of introspection within the government was both elaborate and pragmatic.
It has been clear for some time ~ and certainly after former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, in a sense, hitched his wagon to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party ~ that the government was seeking a graceful way out of the impossible position the protests had placed it in.
Advice from the Captain and from influential voices within the ruling party would have alerted the PM to the extent of opposition to the controversial laws, and to the intractability of the farmers’ position. While the farm sector cries out for reforms, the lesson of the past few months is that they must be born out of consensus.