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The Big Story: Policy by proxy

As 2021 gets under way, after 45 days in the cold and despite eight rounds of talks with the government, tens of thousands of farmers continue their demonstration on the borders of Delhi. The farmers are protesting three agricultural laws passed in controversial manner by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government that seek to deregulate portions of the farming sector.

While the government sold the laws as reforms that would liberate and energise Indian agriculture, the protesters saw them as a gateway to a corporate takeover of farming. The subsequent pushback led to one long-time political ally of the BJP quitting the government and prompted thousands of protesters – Mint says the number is around 200,000 – making their way to the borders of the capital.

For background on the farmer protests, read our earlier articles:

The protests managed to extract significant concessions from the government in the first two weeks after they began.

But the farmers have been steadfast in their demand that the laws be completely repealed. They are represented by a collection of farm leaders who managed to put aside their other disagreements and profit from a mistake – when Haryana farm leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni broke through police barricades instead of settling at the Haryana-Punjab border as planned.

The eighth round of talks, held on January 8 between the 41-member delegation of protestors and several Union ministers, was a clear indication of just how deadlocked the issue remains.

First, the ministers kept the farm leaders waiting for a half hour, as they have routinely done during negotiations. When talks began, the farmers restated their demand for a full repeal. The government refused. Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar claimed that not all farmers were against the laws – and so the ones who are protesting should stand down.

What followed was heated tempers and raised voices, and no resolution in sight. The farm leaders left, agreeing only to meet again on January 15.

Reports suggested the government did make two proposals to break the deadlock. One was to set up a small informal committee with representatives from both sides that would draw up a non-binding proposal for a way forward. The farmers had already rejected this, demanding that the laws should be repaled before any discussions on how agricultural policy should proceed.

The other was to use the Supreme Court – which is taking up the matter on Monday – as a sort of tiebreaker.

According to India Today, “The government proposed that if the Supreme Court says that the laws are illegal then the government will withdraw them and if Supreme Court decides they are legal, the farmers must end their agitation.”

This is the sort of argument that in the past has made sense to many, especially in elite English media circles. In these classes, India’s activist Supreme Court has often been viewed as a better venue for arbitration than the messy democratic politics of the street.

In reality, it has only lived up to this image regularly on issues that concern India’s upper classes. More often than not, instead of acting as a check on government excess, it has tended to side with those in power.

Indeed, 2020 may have been the year when this impression of the Supreme Court was driven home, whether through its pursuit of contempt charges against renowned lawyer Prashant Bhushan or its decision to hurriedly intervene to free jailed pro-government TV anchor Arnab Goswami, while failing to show such alacrity in many other cases regarding civil liberties.

For context, read pieces from 2020 by my colleagues Sruthisagar Yamunan and Shoaib Daniyal:

Although later clarifications seem to suggest the government wasn’t handing over the entire farm law issue to the Supreme Court, it was content to convey the impression that the judges would act as third umpires.

“In our democracy, it is Parliament which makes the laws. But the Supreme Court has every right to examine it,” Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said after the talks with the farm leaders. “Whatever decision the court gives, the government is committed to following it.”

The protesting farmers, however, seemed to have a more clear-headed understanding of the Supreme Court’s role in Indian democratic set-up than even other political parties, which have often hoped to fight policy or ideology battles in the courtroom.

“It’s a sad day for democracy when an elected government in the middle of talks takes resort in the Supreme Court and says that we should fall back on the Court,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, a leader from the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch who is part of the 41-member negotiating team. “This is a matter of the livelihoods of millions of farmers. It is a policy decision which should be taken in consultation with farmers.”

Hannan Mollah of the All India Kisan Sabha echoed this view.

“Why should we go to court over a decision of the executive? This is a conversation that farmers –
who constitute 60% of the population – want to have with their elected government.”

It is important to remember that though the governmen claimed to have consulted with farm leaders across a spectrum before promulgating these laws as ordinances, it had no record of having done so when asked about this processs through a Right to Information request. Moreover, the Opposition demand in the Parliament before the laws were passed was for them to be sent to a committee for scrutiny, which would have allowed for more consultation.

And, of course, the government decided not to convene a winter session of Parliament, which could have well discussed the farm laws, proposed amendments and more instead of leaving such matters to the Supreme Court.

“I wonder why the government is so keen to wait until the Supreme Court hearing,” said Kulwant Singh, president of Jamhoori Kisan Sabha. “They said they can’t repeal the laws as it will set a wrong precedent.”

Flotsam and Jetsam

  • If you missed it at the start of the year, India cleared a Covaxin, a Covid-19 vaccine, for emergency use in “clinical trial mode” without any clarity on what this means, and despite the expert committee raising questions about its usefulness since it has yet to conclude Phase 3 trials. Questions have also been rasied about whether its trials are being conducted properly, especially in Bhopal where hundreds of volunteers were victims of the Union Carbide tragedy.
  • Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar was forced to cancel an outreach programme on the new farm laws after protesters ransacked the venue. Earlier Haryana Police had used water cannons, batons and tear gas to prevent protesting farmers from turning up.
  • Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy is on day four of a protest against Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi, who he alleges has been interfering with the elected government’s day-to-day administration.
  • States around India have begun killing poultry and banning their sale after an outbreak of avian flu was confirmed. So far, the outbreak has been confirmed in Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat.
  • GoAir, the Indian airline, has reportedly fired a pilot – who served in the Indian Air Force for 25 years – after he posted a tweet calling the prime minister an idiot.

Can’t make this up

A solid example of what is wrong with the Indian media to start the year.

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