Farm Agitation: A little less democracy, a little more reform

January 15, 2021 5:45 AM

The Farm protests not only seek to strike down laws enacted by an elected government but also infringe on the rights of many others in the Indian Democracy

Is this “more democracy”? Has anyone wondered why there is no opposition to the extremely purposeful labour and education reforms, which also happened around the same time as the farm laws and no clarion calls have been given about democracy being subverted?

By Srivatsa Krishna
When Narendra Modi took charge, I wrote in The Financial Times ( that “Modi’s task is a Thatcher-style revolution”, and I can say with some unabashed satisfaction that I have been proven right on most things that I had predicted (and wrong on a few). And indeed, he is facing challenges that make those faced by Margaret Thatcher look like a walk in the park. What Modi’s opponents don’t seem to have learnt is that the more pig-headed the opposition, the more resolute and obdurate he becomes to push reforms through—see Article 370, demonetisation, GST, migrants’ crisis. Not for a moment am I saying that the government couldn’t have done more or done certain things differently; what I am saying is the PM has had the strength to survive such crises in the past and will do so again.

The courts must and should examine every full-stop and comma when the constitutionality of laws is challenged, but should they not worry if some of their pronouncements incentivise “mobocracy” when protests against validly enacted laws look at these as a sign of their legitimacy? Legal luminaries believe that it is not the job of the Supreme Court (SC) to create such poor constitutional precedent by suspending the farm laws, encroaching on both the legislature’s and executive’s original domains.

If the right-wing bhakts show up and gherao Delhi for 50 days, insisting on deleting the word “secularism” from the Constitution, can a similar remedy be given? Some farmers are even taking on the SC, saying that the committee that the SC has setup has actually been decided by the government; do they mean to say SC can’t think for itself? Shocking! Already, lawyer Dushyant Dave is saying Chief Justice SA Bobde has “deliberately” kept them away from SC.

Next, the farmers may say “we will only accept the judgment which is pronounced by the bench that we pick in the SC”. Worse, suppose the Supreme Court, with all its might and reason, finally rules in favour of the laws; the farmers might then attribute some motive to the apex court or even cast aspersions on its integrity. Isn’t this pure, unadulterated blackmail?

Farmers are saying something akin to ‘let’s first convert the Rashtrapati Bhawan into a Khap Panchayat, insist on MSP for anything and everything that vaguely resembles a crop or a vegetable (fiscal deficit be dammed), without which we won’t come forward for any dialogue, we won’t even let farmers of other states, who want the laws to benefit from these, accept these’. Is this “more democracy”? Has anyone wondered why there is no opposition to the extremely purposeful labour and education reforms, which also happened around the same time as the farm laws and no clarion calls have been given about democracy being subverted?

“You dare use as much as a water-cannon to disperse us, we will play the victim card immediately and say democracy is under threat.” They don’t appear to want a solution; they just want to keep the agitation alive and kicking, and somehow save the Rs 5,000-odd crore of unaudited, untaxed cash-flows to middlemen in Punjab. For them, the synonym of “less” democracy is not Chinese-style communist dictatorship, but simply strict adherence to whatever is the prevailing law of the land enacted by a legitimately elected government, especially when its complexion may not appear sanguine for political reasons, notwithstanding the reform logic being compelling. Amitabh Kant, the articulate voice of this government, was spot on when he said that India can’t compete with China sans hard reforms, which are difficult to do with too much democracy.

The push-back against the farm laws—which every single government of every complexion and colour, in one form or the other, has paid lip-service to over the last 35 years—is the height of hypocrisy. Should such lies be peddled in the name of democracy just because someone you don’t like decided to walk the talk and implement what was under discussion for decades? Should the government not tackle the problem of depleting water-table in Punjab and in BJP-ruled states as well, without curbing the evil of free power that leads to unfettered pumping of groundwater?

Should burning telecom cables and destroying 1,500 telecom towers be seen as “more democracy” to protest against the farm laws that 27 states of the country seem to have no problem with? Is free movement from one part of the country to the other, and freedom to do business—losses of crores of rupees are being incurred every day, with the agitating farmers threatening to cut off supplies to the national capital—a part of “authentic democracy”? What about “democracy” for those affected by the agitation? When the editor-in-chief of a respected South-based newspaper conglomerate was threatened with arrest by then Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa to ensure no negative coverage thereafter (he had to flee the city), was that not “less democracy”?

The CBI raided MK Stalin just two days after he left the ruling coalition in March 2013, but why was that not called “less democracy” or intolerance? Or was that not a selective political raid? Why the sudden chorus against “less democracy” now? Every government, at every time in recorded history, has nudged the tools in its armoury to act. What is the big deal? Isn’t that what competitive politics is all about?

During a panel discussion chaired by Diana Farrell of McKinsey, the director-general of the Pudong People’s Government, Shanghai, and I were asked to comment on how the Hyderabad and Shanghai clusters were created. The official from Shanghai mentioned how the Chinese army paints concentric circles in red, yellow and green and moves out everyone, on different terms, and the acquired area is cleared out in a month to enable new construction. I, on the other hand, spoke of the multiple lawsuits one faced while acquiring land for Cyberabad, including those from people who claimed a Nizam-era lake to be their private property with perfect, “authentic” deep-fake papers!

This illustrates, in a small way, the huge challenge of carrying out tough reforms in a noisy, fractious democracy. Indeed, we have too much democracy, and the government must use its power to ensure democracy is not saved on a part-time basis by vested interests, but instead is protected by following the law in letter and spirit—again not selectively, for a chosen few.

The demographic dividend is going to last only till 2055. If we lose this golden window of opportunity, we will never climb up the scales of higher GDP and more per capita income. Why not allow 10% less democracy, and trust our own, elected government, with all its well-known faults, to engage in the implementation of 10% more reforms that everyone has cried hoarse about, as being essential, for at least two decades now?

Why allow the hatred of one man to come in the way of reforms and ruin the reaping of the demographic dividend that is not perpetually available? As the current pop-culture anthem goes: Twada kutta Tommy, sada kutta kutta? Twada democracy democracy, sada democracy dictatorship? (Your dog is Tommy, but my dog is just a dog? Your democracy is democracy, my democracy is dictatorship?)


Author is an IAS officer. Views are personal
Twitter: @srivatsakrishna

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