Just when the Narendra Modi government seemed ready for a final push to convert its Land Bill into law, a sharp division has appeared in the Bharatiya Janata Party: a strong section of its leadership has developed cold feet and is arguing that the political cost of the move would be too heavy to ignore.

“More than the tactical reasons, it is the division in the leadership which is holding the Bill back,” a senior minister in the Modi government told Scroll.in as he tried to explain the delay in introducing the bill in the Rajya Sabha.

The contentious land acquisition bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on March 10, but the government – despite aggressive public statements by senior BJP leaders and ministers – has not yet introduced it in the Upper House. The delay is at odds with the promptness shown in tabling the insurance, coal and mining Bills in the Rajya Sabha once the government had sailed through the lower house.

Unusual resistence

“The resistance that Modi is facing from his ministers and the BJP leaders over the land bill is unusual," the minister said. "This is the first time this has happened in the last ten months"  since he became prime minister.

An incident at the BJP parliamentary party meeting on March 17 reflected the prime minister’s frustration at his inability to take the entire party and his cabinet along with him, officials said. At the meeting, Modi pulled up nearly two dozen MPs for skipping the vote on the land Bill in the Lok Sabha.

Despite this, Modi remains intensely focussed on the legislation. On Wednesday, this was reflected in a strange manner. “That day, [Congress MP] Pradeep Bhattacharya ran into Modi and asked him to take some steps to revive sick units in West Bengal," said an official close to the legislator. "Modi’s response was rather baffling. He said where will we get the land for that, if the bill is not passed?”

Still, the Prime Minister finds himself in a fix, not just because the issue has united the entire opposition but also because it has thoroughly divided his own party and the Sangh Parivar.

'Anti-farmer Bill'

Modi’s detractors in the BJP have described the proposed legislation as an “anti-farmer Bill”. It was debated hotly even in the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the highest decision-making body of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, at their meeting held from March 13 to 15. In the course of the deliberations, the RSS-affiliated mass fronts like the Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram expressed deep concern over the Bill. While Bhaiyyaji Joshi, the Sarkaryavah or executive head of the RSS, backed the Bill, he also asked the Modi government to consult organisations like BKS, SJM and VKA.

According to party officials, the absence of unqualified backing for the land Bill has emboldened Modi’s detractors in the government and the BJP.

From the viewpoint of these BJP leaders, the Land Bill could snowball into a major crisis, especially in such states as Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal where assembly elections are due and where the saffron party is already facing an uphill task.

“The anti-farmer aspect of the bill has gone down so widely that if it is passed it would revive the Shining India moment for the party once again,” said the minister.