Opposition has finally come together on farm legislation. But that won’t be enough

Illustration | Ramandeep Kaur

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Eighteen opposition parties and 31 farmer organisations have come together to oppose Narendra Modi government’s apparently ill-thought out farm laws, which they wanted a select committee to review before passing in the Rajya Sabha due to the evident lacunae in them. But the opposition was bulldozed. Some experts claim that these legislation can eventually lead to formations of monopolies, oligopolies and cartels.

But how will the Opposition convince the Indian public about the ill-effects of these farm sector reforms? The opposition parties may have come together – a rare occurrence nowadays – but can they sustain, be effective and mobilise mass uprising? Speaking boldly on Twitter, broadcasting self-recorded videos from central hall and giving TV bytes aren’t going to be enough, not with the upcoming Bihar and West Bengal elections at stake. 

Modi and his politics have set new paradigms and opposing them will also require political innovation on part of the Opposition. Sloganeering and throwing papers in the House in hope that a live telecast will make them look like heroes — who stood for a cause — back in their respective constituencies is so last decade. If anything, this is what Modi and his politics feeds on — ‘look at them, they didn’t do much when they were in power, they don’t want me to do it for you now’.

Also read: Farm reform bills are a beginning, not the agricultural equivalent of 1991

Opposition trying to consolidate

The Opposition has decided to rake up these issues jointly. Congress has already launched its nation-wide protest while Shiromani Akali Dal’s lone minister in Modi government, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, walked out of the government to express her displeasure with these laws. Left, NCP, DMK, Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress and the RJD — the usual suspects — have also joined in. But how effective will this bunch be?

Before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, these parties had come together as a joint front to decimate the Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut. But the election result revealed that the attempt was a damp squib. The fact that the Congress continually wanted to ascertain itself as the leading national opposition party, which it was, made it take decisions that were not favourable to the joint opposition. Regional leaders like Chandrababu Naidu and Arvind Kejriwal who nurtured aspirations to establish themselves at the centre kept looking for PR opportunities to make them appear at par with Modi. This turned the joint opposition into a Frankenstein that may have looked like a giant but didn’t have a functioning mind.

The same will eventually happen with these farmer protests. Congress is already leading its own nationwide protest while regional leaders, besides the Chautalas and Badals, don’t really care all that much. Their participation in the agitation against the legislation is only to embarrass the government for the way it has stripped Parliamentary rules and decorum. In fact, much has been spoken previously, too, on MSP and how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has utterly failed in the farming sector with rising farmer suicides.

Also read: When Modi govt came to power, farmer protests increased 700% — the 3 bills are its result

…but it has a poor strike rate

The 2018 farmer protests that saw farmers from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh  marching on foot all the way to Delhi to ask for debt relief and better MSP on crops was seen as the Modi government’s biggest threat. But all that came crashing down on 23 May when the BJP alone won 303 seats. The joint opposition raking up the Rafael deal and following it up with the ‘Chowkidar chor Hai’ campaign also led to a disgraceful dead end for the Opposition.

The Opposition is using tried and tested failed methods to showcase the policy failures of the Modi government. A citizens’-led movement opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) had much more fervour than any of the joint Opposition protests. This was because it was a ground-up movement, not coming down from the ‘high command’ of any opposition party. The Opposition needs to focus on disseminating the failures of this government on ground, and go door-to-door, through their karyakartas because, by now, it has become clear that their big camera-oriented protests are fizzling out eventually. To understand why this is important, just see what Modi did — at the first sign of the protests gathering momentum, he announced an increase in MSP for six rabi crops and followed it up by asking the BJP workers to spread awareness on the legislation.

The Opposition needs to realise that much of its agitation in the past have failed to showcase the glaring failures of the Modi government, including major policy failures such as demonetisation, faulty Goods and Services Tax (GST) implementation, Kashmir, China and now the agri ‘reforms’  because none of the voters are convinced about how bad the Modi government’s policies actually are. And that is because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP’s propaganda machinery along with their foot soldiers are much more effective in canvassing Modi and his policies.

The Opposition usually gets irked for being questioned on their failed attempts to showcase the government’s failures. It questions those who seek answers from them and demands that only the government be held responsible. Yes, the government is accountable, but what if those responsible for keeping it on toes are themselves going off balance — issue after issue. Their failure means the government will continue to frame policies that hurt India’s interest.

Questioning the government today, even in the well of the upper House, like
Derek O’Brien did, is not leading to any answers from the Centre. Only voters have the power to tell Modi and Co — ‘no, you are doing it all wrong’. But that will only happen if the Opposition learns how to reach out to people and explain to them everything that this government is hurting since 2014 — from economy to jobs to farmers.

The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.

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