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The Big Story: Agri aggro

Is the Bharatiya Janata Party treating Parliament like a rubber stamp, instead of the consultative, representative body it is supposed to be? That is the question we asked on last Monday’s The Political Fix. Events over the last few days offer a pretty straightforward answer: yes.

On Sunday, Deputy Chairman Harivansh Singh declared that two controverisal bills on agriculture policy received enough support in the Rajya Sabha – measured by members yelling “aye” or “no” as loud as they could – to be passed into law. However, the chaotic circumstances made it clear that the voice vote was not definitive.

It is worth noting that analysts are divided on the effects of these laws. Some have referred to them as agriculture’s “1991 moment”, which will unleash growth in the sector by allowing farmers to sell their produce to any party of their choice rather than only in specific markets (read our earlier edition for background on the bills). But others worry that they make it easier for large companies to exploit farmers. BJP partisans even argue that the bulldozing of the laws through Parliament was necessary, in the face of what they believed was frivolous obstruction from the Opposition.

Even though the laws had provoked large-scale protests from farmers and prompted a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet to resign, some BJP supporters seem to believe that the laws must be passed at all costs instead of being sent to a bipartisan Parliamentary panel. That attitude is further evidence of the BJP’s decision to treat Parliament as nothing more than a perfunctory pitstop rather than a vital part of Indian democracy.

Looking at it from a broader perspective, there are three angles to this controversy.

1. Process

We mentioned last week that these two bills, plus a third one, were in fact meant to replace ordinances that Modi’s government had already promulgated earlier this year. There was no particular explanation for the urgency – except for the fact that it was a politically opportune.

Ordinances have to eventually be approved by Parliament. But because they have already been implemented as laws, discussion around them is usually very limited. The large protests by farmers in Haryana and Punjab, and opposition from the Punjab-based Shiromani Akali Dal – an ally of the BJP – fueled stronger demands than usual for the bills to get the proper Parliamentary treatment, including being referred to a panel.

Ultimately, the BJP didn’t budge. After being passed by the Lok Sabha, where the ruling party has an absolute majority, they were taken up by the Rajya Sabha on Sunday. After just a few hours of debate, the bills were taken up for passage.

Opposition Members of Parliament could be seen making a ruckus – they said later that they were demanding a division vote, in which each MP would have to record their position, on resolutions calling for the legislation to be sent to a committee. The Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien entered the well and could be seen showing the rule book to the deputy chairman who was presiding over the session. As this was going on, with more Opposition MPs shouting slogans, the audio of proceedings was muted.

Eventually, the House was adjourned for a little while. When it came back, the deputy chairman moved to pass the bills using a voice vote – essentially a test of which side could yell louder. This is standard for uncontested bills. But if there is doubt about the final numbers, every MP has the right to demand a division of votes.

Even though the BJP does not have a simple majority in the upper house, the bills nevertheless were passed amid the chaos with a voice vote.

The events that followed broke down on predictably partisan lines.

BJP MPs decried the actions of the Opposition for attempting to disrupt the voting and rushing into the well of the House. They called for the MPs involved to be punished.

Meanwhile, the Opposition members moved a vote of no-confidence against the deputy chairman for refusing a division vote. O’Brien, one of those whom the BJP is gunning for, explained his view of what happened in a series of videos.

My colleague Shoaib Daniyal, meanwhile, wrote about how disturbing it is that these widespread reforms were passed without clarity on whether they actually had sufficient numbers in the Upper House, all because of the voice vote:

“Video footage of the bills being passed is damning. The deputy chairman passed all three bills by a voice vote amidst so much chaos, it would be impossible to ascertain if there were more ayes than noes. In effect, it could be argued, the opinion of the Rajya Sabha was replaced by the opinion of its deputy chairman, who seemed intent on passing these legislations no matter what.”

2. Politics

Two days before the chaotic events in the Rajya Sabha, came this remarkable sequence in the Lok Sabha, involving the Shiromani Akali Dal, one of the BJP’s oldest allies. This is what the Indian Express reported:

“Senior BJP leader Rajendra Agrawal was in the chair as SAD president and Ferozpur MP Sukhbir Singh Badal stood up to speak. As Sukhbir attacked the Congress for including a promise to abolish the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees in its manifesto ahead of the 2019 elections, the Treasury benches [i.e. the BJP members] applauded. When Agrawal tried to cut Sukhbir short and called YSRCP’s Lavu Krishna Devarayalu to speak, BJP MPs pleaded with the Chair to give him more time.

As Sukhbir continued his speech, Speaker Om Birla took the Chair. Sukhbir spoke against the Congress again, and then said: ‘I would like to make an announcement that [Union Minister] Harsimrat Kaur would resign from the government in protest.’ Before the Treasury benches and Opposition MPs realised what was happening, Sukhbir walked out of the House with Harsimrat. He returned later to take part in the debate that was still continuing.”

Over the last few years, the BJP has lost the support of Andhra Pradesh-based Telugu Desam Party and Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena, one of its oldest partners. In both cases, this was partly because the BJP appeared to be cannibalising the regional ally, although other factors too were at play.

The Shiromani Akali Dal has not yet quit the BJP-run National Democratic Alliance, even though its only MP in the Cabinet resigned and its leaders on Sunday decried the passage of the agricultural bills without further consultation with farmers.

Although there has been jostling between the SAD and the BJP for some voters in Punjab, the alliance was a more natural one because the former focused on the Sikh community while the latter brought in upper-caste Hindus.

It is pertinent to note that Punjab is currently ruled by the Congress, which has taken an extremely sharp position against the bill, saying they are anti-farmer and promising to challenge the laws in court. Evidently the SAD is feeling the heat of remaining in partnership with the BJP, while also hesitant to exit an alliance that is almost built into its DNA.

As O’Brien mentioned, two other parties that normally vote with the government but are not allies – the Biju Janata Dal and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi – actually expressed misgivings about these bills. Some calculations of the BJP’s hopes of getting a majority earlier relied on their support, but there is no way now to evaluate how the numbers might have stacked up, again because of the voice vote.

Modi was undeterred by the questions about democratic norms.

He even tweeted in Punjabi.

3. Policy

So what are these controversial reforms? We reported on the intial reactions to them back in May when they were included in Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat Covid-19 package, which failed to cushion the country from a massive economic contraction.

To put it very simply, the laws would allow farmers to sell their produce outside of the regulated markets, known as Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee yards, which are the only locations permitted for farm produce sales in many states. Ths laws would allow farmers to sell produce across state lines, while also creating a framework for contract farming.

Shankkar Aiyyar offers what is now the predominant view of these laws, at least across much of the English media, including many who may not agree with the manner in which the laws were passed:

“The Indian farmer is not hankering for charity. The farmer wants to leverage land, labour and capital like any other entrepreneur but alas cannot. The farmer is promised credit but denied access to it. The rhetoric of free power supply translates into unreliability. Pricing is subject to populist whims. Access to markets is controlled by politically blessed cartels. India’s largest private sector, wracked by debt and destitution, is reduced into a case for political charity.

The parade of populist pretence persists.”

In this view, the laws – like the 1991 reforms in India – will liberate farmers, giving them freedom to go beyond APMCs, permit a more organic discovery of price, expand contract farming and bring growth to a sector that desperately needs it.

Supporters acknowledge that this government doesn’t necessarily have the credibility to follow through on the promises embedded in these laws. This was demonstrated by the sudden decision to ban onion exports – to protect Indian consumers from inflation, even if it comes at the cost of farmers (and ties with Bangladesh). But that is seen as a failure of the government, not the underlying logic of the laws.

Roshan Kishore sought to answer the natural follow-up question: if these laws will liberate farmers, why are they turning out in large numbers to protest them?

Kishore acknowledges that some of this may be backlash from those who have benefited from rent-seeking behaviour. But he also points out that

“The entire logic of abolishing the monopoly of APMCs is that they artificially depress prices for farmers; allowing corporate players will guarantee better returns to farmers, the argument goes. Whether or not this happens cannot be said today. But farmers have a good reason to be circumspect about claims of growing presence of corporates being unambiguously good for them.

Agricultural input markets, such as seeds, pesticides etc. have seen a large-scale corporatisation in the past decade, but this has been accompanied by a sharp rise in prices of intermediate inputs in agriculture. Data from the ministry of agriculture shows that a rising cost of intermediate goods has been the biggest reason for stagnation and eventual decline in terms of trade for farmers.”

It should come as no surprise that Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the Union Minister who resigned from Modi’s Cabinet over these bills, brought up Reliance Jio. She noted how it first wiped out competition and then raised rates – as an example for what farmers fear may happen if a big corporate player aggressively enters the sector.

Indeed, losing bargaining power to a large company is one of the core insecurities brought up by farmers, expressed to some extent in their fears that Minimum Support Prices for certain crops will be done away with.

Much, then, depends on how this plays out, as Udit Misra writes in his extremely readable summary of the bills and opposition to them:

“If farmers feel robbed and exploited when they participate more fully in the market, they will blame the political masters but if they taste success via better returns on a sustained basis — one that allows them to afford better standards of living — then long-standing doubts will melt.

There is another question underlying this entire debate. Agriculture is, ultimately, a state subject, albeit with some exceptions. The Centre is attempting to get around this by regulating trade of agricultural produce, rather than agriculture itself.

This means, for example, that the new laws don’t do away with the state-controlled APMCs or the legislation that undergirds them. They permit the APMCs to continue operating, while also creating an entirely different set of rules for farmers to follow outside those markets.

Mekhala Krishnamurthy argues that this “bypass reform”, since it lacks clarity, will ultimately be inffective.

“The vision for reform cannot now be to leave the APMC markets to state regulation, while the ‘rest’ of the space is minimally regulated under a distant central act and district administrators.

The farm ordinances, now Bills, and likely soon-to-be Acts, may have been moved after years of frustration with uneven and partial state-level reforms. But the real credibility of an agricultural market reforms process will not come from the boldness of bypassing the states.

It will depend on how the Modi government creates the confidence and the space—currently completely missing—to support states in their own long-term reform processes and provide a robust institutional framework for Centre-state and inter-state coordination wherever needed. This will equally require the demonstration of greater leadership and initiative by the states. Without both, the only ones to be bypassed, yet again, will be India’s farmers.”

Other updates

Thanks for reading the Political Fix. We’ll be back on Friday with a Q&A and links. Send feedback to rohan@scroll.in.