Farmers protest
India: Farmers protest with their tractors in support of the nationwide strike called by Farmer unions Image Credit: ANI

Since late November 2020, a large group of farmers have been stationed at the border of the national capital, Delhi, braving the bitter cold, an attack on their patriotism and loyalty by the government and its online foot soldiers; even insinuations of terrorist links, as they fight for what they see as their right in a functioning democracy — the right to protest.

Last week, their resolve to stay the course with their opposition to 3 controversial farm laws was only strengthened when talks with the government failed to address their basic demand — a complete repeal. The farmer protests are a serious political test for the Centre, which thought it could ram through the new laws like it did with Article 370 and the Citizenship Act.

It would have been prudent then not to allow BJP leaders and the party’s vast online army to label the protesting farmers as Khalistanis, tukde tukde gang members etc.

Perhaps realising this had backfired, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was fielded suddenly to take a softer line and admonish those who indulged in the name calling.

There is no point in calling Parliament a ‘temple of democracy’ if all we worship are personalities in politics

- Nidhi Razdan

Merits of new farm laws

To be fair, many economists and agricultural experts have argued that the new laws are much needed to transform and reform India’s farm sector; that this change needed political will which only a government with a strong majority could hope to get through. Other experts have countered this view. The argument here isn’t on the merits of the new farm laws.

It is on the methods used to adopt them. Methods that are now characteristic of how the BJP government operates. Just look at how it happened. The new farm laws were rushed through by the BJP government in June 2020 through ordinances (a now much abused route for legislation which is actually only meant for “circumstances that require taking immediate action”).

Later, these laws which had to be ratified by parliament under the Constitution, were just rammed through without proper debate. Several opposition parties had at the time, raised concerns on key provisions and asked for the bills to be sent to a Parliamentary committee. Those same objections have been raised by farmer groups today. Makes you wonder — if the government had actually listened to even some of the opposition’s inputs and sent the bills to a committee for further scrutiny, would things have come to such a pass today?

But this is a government that does not believe in discussion, consensus or taking questions. They believe their majority in parliament gives them the right to push through any law they please, with little or no debate. In a true democracy, it should be a government of ALL Indians, not just those who voted for the BJP. But to question the BJP is to question India itself. And brute numbers are the only thing that matter.

Bypassing the parliament

So something as momentous as the dilution of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir was done without the consent of the people of the former state and in fact their democratically elected leaders were jailed for months. That is why they pushed ahead with the Citizenship Amendment Act, ignoring the voices of protest. Many of who protested against the CAA last year are now in jail facing riot cases and even terror charges.

The one institution which is the hallmark of our democracy — Parliament — has been repeatedly bypassed in the last few years. Last year, ahead of Parliament’s Monsoon session, more than 10 ordinances were promulgated by the government and then pushed through as laws during the session without a proper debate. That includes the farm laws.

The winter session of parliament, coming as it was during the peak of the farmer protests, was scrapped altogether citing the COVID epidemic. However, political rallies attended by thousands, many without masks, went ahead as scheduled in Bengal, which is the next prize the BJP is eyeing. The previous parliament session saw the government scrap question hour again citing the pandemic as an excuse.

Question Hour has been a sacred tradition which allows the opposition to ask the government pretty much anything. The system of referring Bills to specially-constituted standing committees was introduced so that smaller committees would have more time to scrutinise bills and call in experts.

According to PRS Legislative Research, only 25 per cent of the Bills introduced in the BJP government’s first term were sent to committees. It was 71 per cent under Manmohan Singh’s government.

A “strong” government is not one that uses majority to hammer home its agenda simply because it can. A truly strong and self assured government is one that reaches out to all sections, even the opposition, to try and find a meeting ground on contentious issues. There is no point in calling Parliament a ‘temple of democracy’ if all we worship are personalities in politics.