Dead centre of a long cold winter, and there seems little chance of a year-end tonic for the spirits. If the sun plays truant even in otherwise balmy Bangalore, you can imagine New Delhi from afar—all shrouded in a spiritual smog. Who can blame our parliamentarians for feeling the chill just in anticipation! The average age of all the gallants in the Lok Sabha is around 54, and the grey eminences of Rajya Sabha round off to a genteel 62. Like clever schoolboys who wish to play truant, they are citing good reasons to skip the entire Winter Session.
You can’t argue against Covid-19, can you? Of course, they never much complain about elections—the occasional private grumble about sore throats aside. Maybe the presiding officers could have considered an open-air session, gram sabha style, to get the juices flowing. The real people’s parliament is elsewhere, though. The Delhi borders are the new central vista. And they will neither defer nor cancel the congregation … or shall we say, revolution? Punjab’s farmers do bring an extra bit of ingenuity into life in the bush.
Desi geyser, cheap front-loading washing machine, pizza langar, warm water, all-weather tents … looking at their knack for solutions, one cannot help think farming and agriculture better be left to them than be subjected to our government’s grand ideas of reform. What’s also clear is that they’ve dug in their heels—a few old protesters have died on the battlefield, a priest has taken his own life in solidarity. These sites are full-fledged mobile townships of dissent. A siege from the heartland’s soil itself.
The Supreme Court’s intervention on one front—through the humble expedient of a committee—does not evoke much confidence. What can a committee do when the worldviews are so starkly opposite? The government has decided it knows best. The farmers are adamant they know better. Where’s the meeting point? Unless one side decides to take a step back, or aside, or forward across the trenches to the other side.
Will it finally be the government? It’s an interesting test of initiative for the Narendra Modi regime. Early in its first stint, it had exhibited some sensitivity to criticism and enough suppleness to respond—the Land Acquisition Act was the bone of contention then. Since those early days, an inflexible air has attended all its big decisions. And since many of those were crafted with an explicitly epoch-breaking ambition, the Modi government has become habituated to riding out criticism without bending. But to be quake-proof, tall buildings need to bend and sway.
Narendra Singh Tomar can at least thank the protesting farmers for making him famous. Before this protest broke, our self-absorbed citizenry had to google to find who the Union agriculture minister is. Well, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala claimed in an interview that Tomar has never tilled the land, so can’t comprehend the angst of those whose life depends on it. The RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, whose ‘moral support’ is with the protesting farmers, is more charitable. “Tomar’s a good man,” they say. “He understands the plight of the farmers, he had agreed with all the points we made before these three Bills were passed. But senior officials have made him understand otherwise.”
The BKS claims both the PM and Tomar are being led up the garden path by “bureaucrats with a vested interest”. The Supreme Court’s latest intervention—putting a bar on the implementation of the laws, but without a formal stay—frames a classic impasse. As things stand, the legislature has abdicated on its onus to create a middle path through open debate and discourse; and the executive went for maximum, instead of incrementalising whatever reforms were necessary by common consensus.
If Finance Ministry mandarins are to be believed, there’s no money to procure grains or pay MSP ad infinitum. The Food Corporation of India’s debt stands at Rs 2.65 lakh crore - a 190% increase since 2014. The market prophets are inclined to say it’s another 1991 moment: reform or perish. But alas, there’s no canny Narasimha Rao to manufacture political consent or sell reforms through tact and consensus. And just to think that was a minority government supported by the Left, when it was still a force to reckon with.
The BJP certainly has fire in the belly, and ideologically motivated legions who win them elections. But it still seems to lack tact and finesse, or that well-honed parliamentary and legislative savoir faire of the Congress - its ability to pull off difficult, contentious, even epochal changes without the world and its uncle crying foul, or life on the streets getting disrupted. And when it did, to at least seem to respond and strike a balance. Just contesting elections successfully does not make you democratic. The first step in carrying through reform is to take on board the stakeholders, and fine-tune yourself in light of their experience.
Seen in totality, the ’90s idea of blanket reforms itself underwent a reform in the light of experience. As it should have. Let’s not delude ourselves. Even now, India hugs the bottom ranks in malnourishment and poverty is still a stark reality. Can the state really withdraw from its legal commitment to procure and distribute? Can that basic duty be outsourced to market forces? Can the market fulfil a moral mandate? The new reform must integrate two polar opposites: it needs genius, not guns.
Santwana Bhattacharya (santwana@newindian express.com)
Resident Editor, Karnataka, The New Indian Express