Government scrambles to find a face-saving mechanism-anything short of repeal of farm laws

Repeated appeals to the farmers’ delegation this week to suggest alternatives to repealing the farm laws shows growing desperation to save the Prime Minister’s face and rescue him from a rabbit hole

Farmers’ leaders emerging from Vigyan Bhawan after a meeting with the government panel
Farmers’ leaders emerging from Vigyan Bhawan after a meeting with the government panel

Sanjukta Basu

Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar was sweet, polite and reasonable when the farmers’ delegation met him at the Vigyan Bhavan on Wednesday for the sixth round of talks with the Government. The minister not only had his meal, brought by farmers, but was effusive in complimenting them for their peaceful, disciplined and organised protest.

“He was cordial, warm and attentive,” confided one of the members of the delegation. Although no representative of the Energy ministry or Delhi Government was present at the meeting, he added with a chuckle, the Government side was also quick to concede the farmers’ two minor demands related to power tariff and fines and imprisonment of farmers for stubble burning.

But unlike past meetings, the Government this time pleaded with the farmers to suggest a way out, anything short of repealing the farm laws. “They repeatedly asked for alternatives to repeal of the laws,” confirmed the delegation. Clearly, the Government is anxious to end the stalemate and back off. But with Prime Minister Narendra Modi having made it into a prestige issue and digging his heels in, the Government is unable to accept the farmers’ demand that the laws be repealed first.

The stakes are high because the Prime Minister has invested so much on the controversial laws that repealing them will be a loss of face for him. And it will be seen as a resounding setback for his arbitrary style of functioning and almost certainly undermine his authority and standing.

While the delegations agreed to meet next on January 4, the search is on in earnest to save the PM’s face.

The Prime Minister’s website claims he delivered 209 speeches in 2020 on various occasions till the last week of December. But he did not mention the new farm laws before or promulgating the three ordinances in June. He broke his silence only after the farm bills were passed without debate in parliament on 17th September 2020.

Reply to an RTI application has now confirmed that the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare has no information of any consultation held before finalising the farm bills. Yet the PM has consistently been saying that the Bills were finalised after consultation with stake holders.

From September to December the PM spoke on the revolutionary benefits of the farm “reforms” on several occasions.He strongly defended the farm laws and criticised the opposition for instigating and misleading the farmers. He did so at the inauguration of the Kosi Mahasetu and other highway projects, in his Mann Ki Baat radio talks, at a gathering of BJP Karyakartas on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s birth anniversary, in Bihar election rallies and at the Virtual FICCI Expo etc.

In December, as protests against the farm bills intensified, his speeches became more strident and frequency of such speeches increased manifold. He claimed farmers were being misled, that his government was committed to double farmers’ income, that he had done more than anyone for farmers’ welfare and assured the farmers that their interests would always be safeguarded.

On 3rd October he claimed the new laws would benefit small farmers as they would now be free to sell their produce like apples anywhere and to anyone in the country. Rupinder Kumar, a small farmer in Punjab’s Fazilka district said, “The central government is saying that it is providing the freedom to farmers to sell their crop to anyone and anywhere in the country, which the farmers of the country have already been doing.”

On 12th December Modi spoke at a FICCI event about the “new markets and opportunities to farmers” that the new laws would open up even as lakhs of farmers were sitting at the Singhu border braving the biting cold. On 15th December he spoke to a group of Gujarat Farmers where he again made similar claims.

Addressing a farmers’ meeting in Madhya Pradesh on December 18 he said, “I believe there is no reason for distrust or place for lies in the farm reforms we have passed.”

Modi claimed the new laws would help farmers access advanced technologies. Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar claimed that out of the 201 recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee, 200 were implemented under Modi’s leadership.

“Out of the 200 recommendations the government has claimed to implement, only 25 have been implemented during the Modi government. The remaining 175 recommendations were implemented during the previous UPA regime,” reported The Wire.

After having defended the farm laws, the Government is clearly reluctant to concede defeat and publicly admit they were wrong. Hence the frantic search for a face-saving solution and mechanism. It is more important to save the Prime minister’s face than do the right thing.

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