Opposition's support to farmers' protest flies in the face of having previously backed similar reforms

There is little point in taking pride about agriculture being India’s largest employer when the sector accounts for 17 percent of the country's GDP while engaging 57 percent of the population. The glaring inefficiency in the sector has been acknowledged by politicians, policymakers and stakeholders alike. However, the reluctance to remove the hurdles that drag the sector has been consistent too.

In 1991, when India decided to open its economy, it was hailed as a watershed moment. Over a period of 3 decades, the process of investment in various sectors has been eased in order to facilitate market development. However, agriculture continued to operate in a restrictive regulatory regime. Ironically, no free market economist at the helm of policymaking in ten years of the UPA regime showed the commitment to free agricultural markets from superfluous regulations and inexplicable constraints. Politicians who admitted to the urgency of agricultural reforms in public scuttled every such step in private.

Be it elections, be it the Budget, be it loan waivers — farmers were central to politics, but not their welfare.

There are several examples where those who promised “freedom” to farmers are today protesting against the very laws that will usher in a new era for the agrarian economy. Instead of endorsing better price discovery through open markets, self-proclaimed messiahs of farmers want to contain them at 'minimum support prices'. Let us look at some of these examples of hypocrisy:

The Bhartiya Kisan Union, in its 'Kisan Manifesto' in 2019 had asked for the abolition of the APMC Act and the Essential Commodities Act, and for doing away with arhatiyas. The same organisation now supports Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh's call for rejecting laws that intend to free farmers from the clutches of middlemen.

What could have changed in a year? The commitment of BKU towards farmers, or the fear of becoming redundant post the successful implementation of farm laws? This is the same union that staged protests in 2008 asking corporate players to be permitted to buy farm produce directly from farmers.

In 1993, Rakesh Tikait had approached the then prime minister PV Narsimha Rao seeking 'One Nation One Market' in agriculture. However, he is now demanding that these laws be repealed.

Similar is the case with former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar. In 2010, when reports suggested that one farmer commits suicide every 12 hours in India, Pawar advocated reforms to make agriculture financially viable and sustainable. He wrote a letter to the then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, stating the need for private sector participation in the agriculture sector. Not only this, Pawar was advocating changes in the APMC Act, which is a recurring theme in the current protests.

In November 2011, he wrote to Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, highlighting the significance of private sector participation in the realm of Indian agriculture.

Unfortunately, Pawar has decided to forego his commitment to the constituency that pledged loyalty to him throughout his political career. Warning the Centre that the farmer protest will extend to other parts of the country, he has publicly abandoned the cause that he had advocated in the past.

Similarly, earlier this year, Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav had advocated for ‘free market in agriculture’ as a member of the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture.

His son Akhilesh Yadav is now vociferously opposing the Bills.

The Congress has also lived up to its politics of flip-flops opposing the very reform that it mentioned in its 2019 election manifesto.

Rahul Gandhi has even called the new laws a “death sentence”. One is unsure if his manifesto promised “death” or whether he irked by the fact that these reforms are being ushered by the Narendra Modi government.

P Chidambaram, in his budget speech in 2004, had called for a revamp of the APMC system. More than a decade and half later, he finds himself on the other side of the aisle, defending shallow politics of opportunism.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal‘s government had notified the Central farm laws on 23 November, 2020, soon after Parliament had passed them. Kejriwal has since taken to attacking the Centre for the passage of the laws and is now seen supervising arrangements at the protest sites on Delhi's borders.

The Shiv Sena had backed The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 in the Lok Sabha with some suggestions. However, party MP Sanjay Raut opposed these Bills in the Upper House.

Are farmers political ammunition for a fraying Opposition? Perhaps so. After all, this is the same Opposition that did not shy from using students and women to create false propaganda around the Citizenship Amendment Act.



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