The impasse over the three farm laws refuses to end. While the 40-odd farm unions from Punjab, Haryana and western UP insist on a repeal of the three laws, the Union government has clearly refused to budge. The seven rounds of confabulations that saw three Union Ministers holding talks with farmer leaders should have happened before the bills were introduced in Parliament, says the Opposition. The government argues that a debate on the issue has been on for the last 40 years. It cites the manifestos of Opposition parties and speeches by many of its luminaries supporting similar reforms in the past, to argue why it is being opportunistic to do politics on the issue now.
The protesting farmers are our people, our “annadatas”. In the charged times, some quarters have called them “Khalistanis” or even “anti-nationals,” which is plain wrong and eminently avoidable. The farmers had initially said that they would not allow their platforms to be used by political parties and their leaders. What we have seen, however, is that the Opposition, in search of a potent issue, has rallied behind the protesters in an attempt to pin the government.
The new farm laws give the farmers the freedom to sell their produce in a market of their choice, without dismantling the existing systems and procedures. Many would say this is a well-intentioned reform empowering the target group -- the farmers. The agitating farm unions have, however, argued that the reforms do a disservice to them, with “no law guaranteeing MSPs for their crops” and “the threat of corporates edging out them of their prized farms looming large”.
The government has said that it would now consult farm unions in the rest of the country as the issue impacts farmers beyond Punjab and Haryana. This is perhaps the right approach, but this may not be enough to assuage the concerns of the protesting farmers, given their pronouncements and intent.
It’s been argued that while a rudderless Opposition allowed the Narendra Modi government a free run in the last six years, the farm protests have truly tested the government. The protests have given the government’s crisis managers some anxious moments. The agitation has attracted international attention. It’s now time an amicable way out was found out of this impasse.
Both the government and the farmers say that farm concerns matter most to them. It’s only logical if the collective voice and will of the farmers of the country prevail.
Instead of consulting just farm unions in other states, as has been indicated by the government, it would make sense, therefore, to do an actual poll of the country’s farming community on the three contentious laws.
Yes, this would be unprecedented, but extraordinary situations do call for extraordinary responses. Challenges for this exercise would be huge. For one, it would be difficult to tap all the farmers of the land. Having said that, a representative sample of the country’s farmers can be drawn by, say, including all the farmers who are beneficiaries of the government’s direct benefit scheme, PM-KISAN. The national scheme is designed to cover over 14 crore farmers since 2019.
Getting those farmers to vote on the three farm laws may be challenging but not impossible. The Election Commission, though not mandated for such exercises, can be roped in. The EC had only recently expressed its willingness to help in the Covid vaccine rollout. The modalities for such an exercise can be worked out after due consultations. The moot point remains that it’s the country’s collective Kisan voice that would have the last say.
A window of three to six months can be provided for such an exercise. Both the government and farm unions and their supporting parties, can sell their pitches to the farmers of the country in the period. The final vote should be acceptable to one and all. If the majority of the farmers feels that the laws are good for them, the protesting farmers should accept the new laws. If, however, the majority feels that the laws require a rethink, the government should do accordingly. In the intervening period, however, the protesting farmers should call off the agitation and let this democratic exercise roll out.
This all-India farmers’ vote exercise would serve many objectives. It would showcase a vibrant democracy in action. It would also open an avenue for periodic gauging of the national mood. In the current debate on “one nation, one poll,” a clause on a referendum, when necessitated by extraordinary circumstances, like the ongoing farm protests, may be added.
Dialogue, engagement, persuasion are what make a democracy work. If a countrywide farm vote shows the way forward out of this impasse, the protests would have served their purpose.
(The author, a JNU alumnus, is a former journalist. He tweets at @skjsumankjha. Responses can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)