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Shah Bano moment

Having stood its ground for nearly one and half years and resisting to succumb to the intransigence of the farmers, the last thing expected from the PM was this surprise announcement made on the day of Gurpurab and that too while the matter was very much in the radar of the Apex Court. Is the prospect of losing elections in a state such a compelling reason for abandoning philosophy and giving a signal of weakness to domestic and foreign forces that a sustained pressure by vested interests groups will force the government to capitulate?

GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE | Kolkata |

History has a bizarre way of repeating itself. While the Prime Minister was apologising to the nation while repealing the farm laws enacted by his Government, I could not but help reflect on another event witnessed 35 years earlier when another Government capitulated to the blackmail of a minority led by the medieval-minded Muslim clerics by enacting the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, that annulled the judgment of the Supreme Court in the 1985 Shah Bano case.

That landmark judgment had ruled that a divorced Muslim woman was entitled to fair maintenance far above what was granted under Muslim Personal Law. By nullifying that judgment, the government of the day had compromised the possibility of justice for millions of hapless Muslim women for its own petty vote bank considerations. In doing so, reform in this arena was set back by more than three decades before another government could take up the issue in 2019 to enact The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act.

In 1985 Rajiv Gandhi’s government commanded a brute majority of 426 seats in the Parliament, yet an impotent government meekly surrendered the interests of millions of Muslim women at the feet of a few clerics and earned a permanent blot for itself in the history of the country.

In 2021, the BJP also commanded a brute majority of 301 seats ~ in fact, 353 with its allies, yet the capitulated to the brazen blackmail of a minority of rich farmers ~ the Arhatiyas who are commission agents, middlemen and money lenders all rolled into one ~ for petty electoral gains in two states going to polls. These Arhatiyas sat illegally on the borders of Delhi for 17 months, blocking roads and traffic and creating mayhem all around just because the three timely and forward-looking bills threatened to end their vicious stranglehold over agriculture.

In its docile submission to them, the Government has compromised not only the interests of millions of small and poor farmers whose status is no better than that of bonded labourers to the Arhatiyas ensuring that they will remain forever poor, but also has mortgaged the future economic growth of the country in which agriculture still remains the biggest source of employment with the smallest contribution to national income.

In doing so, it has ensured that no central government would ever again ~ in near or far future ~ even attempt to reform the agricultural sector. The buck for agricultural reform would be passed to the states which are captive to the caprices of rich farmers whose lobbies are the strongest in India, as the Government’s meek capitulation has undoubtedly demonstrated.

PM Modi’s dream of doubling the farmer’s income along with the country’s hope of catching up with China now has vanished into thin air for ever. Now only the rich famers’ income will be doubled, trebled and quadrupled while the poor farmers would remain where they are. The rich farmers have now tasted blood, they are unlikely to give up their blackmail. Already there are demands for guarantee of higher MSPs, and more are likely to follow.

One can expect that there would be more loan waivers, more freebies like subsidised electricity and fertiliser to deplete and contaminate the sources of water and more sops that will distort and spell disaster for the economy. Lacking in technology and capital which the reforms would otherwise have brought, agriculture would continue to remain unproductive and unremunerative for millions of small farmers.

Their children, lacking in skill which can be acquired only through quality education they would not be able to afford, would have no option but to replace their parents and become economic slaves to the rich farmers. There would be shortage of labour in services and manufacturing impeding our growth; the excess labour that would have been released by agriculture otherwise and employed in other sectors to drive the economy forward would remain a distant dream.

Mr Modi, you ought not to have done this to the country. We trusted you and stood by you all through your disruptive demonetisation, a messy launch of the GST, and many unseemly controversies generated by a desperate and visionless opposition like CAA, NRC, Rafael, and even forgave you for the deadly second wave of Covid that had taken away so many of our loved ones and was utterly mismanaged by your government. We did not expect you to betray and sacrifice the interest of millions of impoverished farmers, growth of agriculture and consequent growth of the economy as a whole merely for the prospect petty electoral gains of your party.

After sailing through the choppy waters of many a stormy sea to kindle the hope of real change in a country that had forgotten the word ‘change’, you have finally failed your country. Like Rajiv Gandhi, history will be unlikely to forgive you. If, as some are suggesting, the trigger for your retreat was the possibility of Pakistan-sponsored threat of disturbance in a border state, it is even more shocking ~ coming from a man who has so radically changed the rules of the game through his bold and imaginative surgical strikes and Balakot operations.

Indeed, despite having an unassailable majority in Parliament, the way the Government had pushed through these bills left much to be desired. Instead of wide ranging consultations with all stakeholders including the opposition, farmers’ bodies, state governments and also the Arhatiyas who finance the elections of all political parties, ordinances were promulgated in a hurry.

The government had a wonderful template before itself about how to pass contentious bills in the GST which was so successfully negotiated by Mr Arun Jaitley. It required patience, imagination and perseverance. For reasons inexplicable, the part leadership showed a singular lack of these qualities while pressing these bills. Even their allies were not taken into confidence, which resulted in the Akali Dal snapping its long enduring ties with the government. But having done that and having stood its ground for nearly one and half years and resisting to succumb to the intransigence of the farmers, the last thing expected from the PM was this surprise announcement made on the day of Gurpurab ~ and that too while the matter was very much in the radar of the Apex Court.

Is the prospect of losing elections in a state such a compelling reason for abandoning philosophy and giving a signal of weakness to domestic and foreign forces that a sustained pressure by vested interests groups will force the government to capitulate? Having rolled back these reforms, if other affected groups now get emboldened and create pressure, supported by an irresponsible opposition desperate to wrest powers from the BJP at any cost – damned be economic growth and national interest if it means capturing power ~ would you roll back your other reforms too?

The agriculture sector has been crying for reforms for decades. These Bills had resurrected the 1991 moment with the promise of dismantling the License-Permit Raj that has been firmly in place in agriculture. Agriculture would have been finally liberated from the clutches of the middlemen and rentseekers who have hijacked the APMC system was initially designed to protect farmers from exploitation of intermediaries to serve exactly the opposite purpose by restricting the farmers from selling directly to food processors, exporters or retailers as all produces are required to be routed only through mandis notified under the various state APMC Acts, which over time had grown into highly extortionate and monopolistic markets.

This has positively discouraged the much-needed private investments on cold storage, food processing and marketing infrastructure to modernise agriculture and usher in a unified, pan-Indian agricultural market. The extremely opaque system plagued with multiple licenses, fees and levies, besides middlemen who act as intermediaries between the farmers and buyers and collect commissions from both, while the levies and commissions continue increase costs with a cascading effect and distort markets by erecting strong entry barriers. This regressive system that benefits only the rich farmers now has become firmly entrenched for all times to come. No government ever in future would dare to challenge it and attempt even a mild reform, even if crisis after crisis numbs agriculture.

(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are
strictly personal)