The government took everyone by surprise and repealed the three farm laws—which have sparked months of angry farmer protests. We look at the fallout of this momentous decision.
Editor’s note: We’ve done many explainers on the farm laws and protests over the past year. If you need more background, here’s the most useful guide to the laws, an explanation of the minimum support price, and the big picture on what farmers really want.
Here’s the simplest explanation of these laws:
The reason for rebellion: The laws actually sound pretty good, but the farmers are convinced they will wreak havoc—without a minimum support price (MSP). Currently, if a farmer fails to sell his harvest to the middleman, then the government buys it from him at a minimum price—as a safety net to ensure he at least recovers his costs. Now, this only applies to 23 crops—and in practice, it only kicks in for wheat and paddy in northern states like Punjab. Only 6% of farmers actually sell their crops at MSP rates.
But without an MSP for both private buyers and the government in place, the farmers were worried about facing this nightmare scenario:
Big point to note: All through the negotiations, the government flatly refused to entertain any demands about MSP: “As far as MSP is concerned, it doesn’t pertain to any of these three laws, and the changes in the administrative structure of MSP in the manner the farmers are demanding is not possible.” OTOH, the farmers insisted: “We have no problems with the farm laws if you pass another legislation that makes the MSP legally binding.” This is now going to become a big sticking point.
The counter-argument: is that the repeal is a disastrous step back from long overdue reforms:
“The existing system of highly subsidised agriculture induces high wheat surpluses at prices above world price, so massive unwanted stocks are neither eaten nor exported. Free electricity has encouraged over-pumping and the growing of water-intensive crops, destroying aquifers. The rice-wheat rotation has encouraged the burning of paddy stubble by farmers that injures and kills thousands through smoke pollution. Modi’s reforms were the first steps towards a new system.”
But, but, but: other experts argue that the repeal now leaves the government free to pursue a variety of other free market measures—and successfully stave off pressure for a universal MSP which “from a reformist perspective, would have been an unmitigated disaster.” FYI: The farm laws—and their repeal—have had little effect on investments in agri-tech—which is expected to rise to $700 million this fiscal year.
Nope. And the alliance leading the movement, Samyukta Kisan Morcha, has shot off a letter to PM Modi listing six demands:
We explained in detail why MSP matters so much to farmers here.
Point to note: Apart from the call for Mishra’s head, none of these demands are new—and were part of the back-and-forth between the government and the farmers. The farm unions have also asked the government to reopen those negotiations—to resolve the above demands.
The government is unlikely to cede any further ground having made its grand gesture of reconciliation. And the farmers are determined to stay the course—and seem unified for now. Point to note: while the repeal is a big victory for them, it can also be used to paint them as unreasonable. As one analyst told BBC News:
“When things are not going in your favour, you make a move in order to deny advantage to your opponents from the emerging situation. The move to repeal the farm laws aims at doing that in many ways.”
The big question is how all this will play out in the upcoming state elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh—whose outcome will also determine the fate of the protests. Let’s start with Punjab.
The Hindu vote: The BJP lost its alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal over the farm laws. But without a Sikh party as its senior ally, the party plans to contest all 117 constituencies. And it is likely to focus most of its attention on 45 Hindu majority seats in the state. Hindus comprise 38% of the population—and can offer a formidable voter base if the BJP can peel off sufficient Sikh voters. As The Hindu notes:
“The SAD is seen as a ‘panthic’ (Sikh) party and hence, largely, the Hindu voters have traditionally remained inclined towards the Congress. As the BJP in the past continued to contest with the SAD, the Hindu voters had kept away from the BJP; however, with the BJP now all set to independently fight the upcoming Assembly election, the fight to garner the support of Hindu votes between the Congress and the BJP would be critical for both parties.”
Amarinder Singh zindabad? By repealing the farm laws, the BJP has removed the only obstacle preventing an alliance with the former Congress Chief Minister—who has now started his own party. He has strong ‘nationalist’ credentials—established primarily by taking aim at Pakistan—and a secular image, both of which will appeal to Hindus. He may be vital to shifting the electoral math like so:
“In a state where it is imperative to project a Sikh face for the chief minister’s post, the BJP will only be too happy to replace Akali leader Sukhbir Badal with Amarinder Singh for the top job. The BJP’s primary aim is to deny the Congress a shot at power and ensure that their party and Amarinder Singh’s new outfit win a reasonable number of seats in the elections. In case of a hung Assembly, the BJP can always persuade the Akalis, their old friends, to support or join the government.”
Thanks to the repeal, a post-electoral alliance with SAD is also back on the cards.
Point to note: The only fly in this ointment is that Amarinder Singh was highly unpopular as a Chief Minister—and will be running as an incumbent not as a challenger.
Is Rahul Gandhi a genius? The moment the repeal was announced, clips of Gandhi predicting the outcome went viral. And Congress has been quick to claim credit for supporting the farmers all along. Also: The appointment of a Dalit Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi was seen as a stroke of genius. But thanks to loose cannon Navjot Singh Sidhu, party infighting remains a problem—which may well erode support when the elections come around if Congress is seen as weak. And all things considered, the repeal has taken away one of the party planks key to its victory.
The wildcard: is the farmer unions—which have resolutely stayed away from aligning themselves with political parties. It isn’t clear if they will throw their support for or against any of them. And it is hard to predict whether farmers will be quite so forgiving at the polls—given the often harsh tactics used by the government to break up the protests.
One of the popular explanations for the U-turn is a recent opinion poll that showed the BJP losing over 100 seats in the upcoming elections—plunging from 325 seats out of a total of 403 to anywhere between 213 and 221.
Western UP: is key to the BJP’s political fortunes, and where it is most vulnerable. This is where the Lakhimpur Kheri tragedy took place—and where farm leader Rakesh Singh Tikait is highly influential. According to BJP sources, their internal surveys predict major losses in the region—where the party won with big margins in 2017. Recovering lost ground here requires wooing back the Jats—whose support is crucial for both assembly elections and national elections. According to one analyst:
“By rolling back the farm laws, the BJP has saved those seats where the margin of victory was 10-15,000 votes in the previous election. The non-Jat farmer who was annoyed with the BJP because of the farm laws would return to the fold. And even among Jats there is a section that is drifting towards the RLD because they could not see farmers squatting on roads. They will return because they identify with the nationalist agenda of the BJP.”
Back to polarisation: This has long been BJP’s winning strategy in the state—and it was being undermined by the focus on farm laws. RSS sources are confident that the repeal will restore voters’ attention—especially that of Jats—to “rashtravaad (nationalism), Hindutva, religious conversions, cow protection and Ram Temple.”
Back to Modi: According to The Hindu, the decision to repeal the laws was also prompted by concerns about the rise of CM Yogi Adityanath:
“If Adityanath had won despite the farm laws, even if with a lesser margin, he would have emerged as a successor to Mr Modi, which a section of the BJP doesn’t want in 2024. Now, the laurels would be shared.”
The wildcard: is Rakesh Tikait. He has emerged as the most recognisable face of the protests in UP. Tikait also has been the most amiable of the farm union leaders—cooperating with the UP government to defuse anger after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident. And his history is dubious to say the least:
“Until the movement against the agri-reforms began, his credibility as a farmer leader was overshadowed by his previous alliances with the BJP—he and his brother, Naresh Tikait, the president of the BKU, were vocal supporters of Hindutva politics and the BJP’s policies. Both the brothers were named in first information reports, along with BJP leaders, filed after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, for inciting communal hatred. The BKU and the BJP had actively participated in a mahapanchayat on 7 September that year, which eventually culminated in the riots.”
For now, Tikait is standing alongside the other farm unions—and their demand for MSP.
The bottomline: The farm laws were framed and legislated in a high-handed fashion—without any buy-in from or consultation with the key stakeholders. Now, they have been withdrawn in an equally unilateral fashion—with little explanation and a weak apology. Everyone, including the farmers, agrees that Indian agriculture requires serious reforms. But any push for change in a democracy is a messy, collaborative process—which typically ends in a compromise that makes no one entirely happy. Until the government and its supporters recognise that basic truth, we will be left to yo-yo from one sweeping policy decision to another—based on the calculations of poll pundits.
For the best background, read our explainers on the laws and MSP. Indian Express offers a contrarian take on the repeal—arguing it opens the doors to more reforms. For the best analysis of the Punjab elections, read The Hindu, News18 and The Print. On Uttar Pradesh, check out Deccan Herald and The Hindu. The Telegraph has more on the latest opinion polls.
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