The famously unyielding Narendra Modi had to do the unthinkable on Monday when he was forced to admit defeat on the land acquisition bill.

After three ordinances and a seven-month-long stand-off over the bill between the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government and the opposition, the ruling alliance has grudgingly decided to drop all the contentious amendments that it had introduced to the bill proposed by the Congress in 2013.

Modi had staked his personal prestige on this piece of legislation and made it the centrepiece of his reform agenda.  But eventually, political compulsions pushed him to beat a hasty retreat.  The forthcoming Bihar assembly elections and the growing public perception that the BJP-led government is anti-farmer and pro-industry were the chief reasons for Modi’s change of heart.

It wasn't just the opposition that had reservations about the bill. Even BJP members, the party's allies as well as organisations affiliated to its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, were wary. They had strong reservations about the decision to do away with the consent clause (requiring the approval of a specified number of plot owners before parcels of land can be acquired) and the provision making a social impact assessment exercise mandatory.  This, they feared, would strengthen the popular impression that farmers’ land would be forcibly acquired to help Modi’s friends in the corporate sector.

Internal opposition

Much to the embarrassment of the government, three RSS affiliates ‒ the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan ‒ had registered their staunch opposition to the changes in the land bill before the joint committee of Parliament that scrutinised the legislation.

“We could not afford to persist with the bill as long as people believed our party does not care about the interests of farmers,” explained a BJP MP.

Several ruling party MPs privately admitted that they were finding it very difficult to convince their constituents about the merits of the amended legislation.

A united opposition, led by the Congress, ran an aggressive campaign against the government’s version of the land bill  since last December. The government’s efforts over the past months to divide the opposition proved futile and it gradually became clear to its crisis managers that the ruling alliance would not be able to pass the bill in the Rajya Sabha, where it is in a minority.

Looking at the bright side

The Prime Minister’s spin doctors sought to counter the opposition  campaign by suggesting that those who opposed the amended bill were anti-development. This legislation, they claimed, would facilitate the easy acquisition of land  for rural infrastructure. But there were few takers for this argument.

The government’s decision was also guided by the upcoming Bihar assembly election. These polls are crucial for the BJP and Modi in particular as a victory for the ruling party will reaffirm that the prime minister’s magic endures and that the party's debacle in the Delhi assembly poll in February was a mere aberration.

A victory would also divert attention from  the various controversies dogging the NDA government, which have silenced the otherwise-voluble Modi. The prime minister will emerge stronger and will be able to push through his agenda with greater confidence if he is able to vanquish the Janata Dal (U)- Rashtriya Janata Dal  in Bihar.

Above all, the government’s retreat on the land bill has denied the JD (U) and RJD a key talking point in the coming election. These parties  were planning to run a campaign suggesting that the BJP and Modi were acting against the interests of farmers.

Restoring key clauses

Given these compulsions, Modi was left with little choice but to backtrack. As a result, the government has decided to restore the key clauses mandating that land can be acquired only after taking the consent of 80% of farmers affected in each deal and that a social impact assessment be undertaken for all categories of land acquisitions.

The government is ready to drop the clause pertaining to the acquisition of land for industrial corridors. The ruling alliance has also agreed to reinstate the provision about prosecuting public servants who violate the land law.

While the opposition is naturally hailing the government retreat as its victory, BJP ministers put up a brave face, saying state governments would now be free to frame their own laws and those who want faster development can opt out of  the clauses that hold back easy acquisition of land.

Untrue argument

But this argument does not hold. Although states can enact their own laws since land is on the concurrent list of the Constitution, the state laws have to be in conformity with the Central law. If there is a conflict between the two, it is the Central law which prevails.

More importantly, the states can  exceed  the provisions in the Central legislation but they cannot dilute them. “For instance, if the central stipulates that consent of 80% of landowners be obtained, the states cannot reduce it to 70% but they can make it 90%,” former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh explained.  "They can’t even do away with the consent clause."

Meanwhile, the suspension of 25 Congress Lok Sabha MPs had its fall-out on the proceedings of the parliamentary panel examining the land bill. The meeting scheduled for Tuesday was postponed for six days after the Congress pointed out that one of  its members on the committee had been suspended  and will, therefore, not be able to participate in the deliberations. The panel is now slated to meet on August 10, way past its deadline for the submission of its report. If the committee chairperson, BJP’s SS Ahluwalia, had not agreed, all the opposition parties had decided to boycott the committee's proceedings.