The Bharatiya Janata Party with assistance from a compliant Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, Harivansh Narayan Singh, may have passed the two contentious farms Bills, the Farmers' and Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, but by being guided by egotism, the ruling party has earned the ire of the farming community, as well as closed its doors for a long time to its remaining old and loyal ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal. Shiv Sena, the only other two decade plus old partners, had already jumped ship last year.
Scenes enacted in Rajya Sabha on Sunday September 20 shall be discussed for long and listed as leading instances when the BJP subverted Parliament and its functioning. While the government has since 2014 used its absolute majority in Lok Sabha to push through legislations despite protests from the Opposition, this was the first time procedural norms were abandoned in the Upper House too.
Significantly, the BJP does not have a majority in Rajya Sabha and even after the elections for 61 seats in June 2020, the BJP along with its allies remained 10 short of a majority in the House. This number would have increased further after the Akali Dal's decision to direct Harsimrat Kaur Badal, its lone representative in the Union Cabinet, to resign. We have also seen the unease of Dushyant Singh Chautala's Jannayak Janata Party, the BJP's coalition partner in Haryana, and after the latest developments, the posture of the party becomes crucial for the survival of the state government.
Without doubts, the BJP did not have the numbers to carry the House on the two laws and while Opposition parties will explore legal avenues, the government's brazenness will have political impact. It is early to say if the consequence of the decision to rush through the legislations and not refer the contentious Bills to the Select Committee shall be felt in the short term.
However, there is no denying that the development provides an opening for collective articulation of negative sentiments on a host of issues, from management of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic crisis, to the handling of the conflict with China in Ladakh. Time will determine if anti-government sentiment on various issues gets channelised through an issue that touches a chord with people in rural India.
Traditionally, reforms have been seen as being anti-poor and pro-rich and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been circumspect on pushing through key economic reforms over which there has been opposition. It has to be borne in mind that the Farm Bills were opposed not just by Opposition parties and NDA partners, but also the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated which works among the peasantry only on issues related to agriculture.
Developments related to the Farm Bills peaked on Sunday, September 20 due to the BJP's arguable urgency to push through market-friendly reforms in the agricultural sector without transparent discussions either within government, or with the Opposition. These developments can be examined through three windows.
The first is obviously the conduct of the government and the presiding officer of the Upper House in ramming the two legislations. The resulting uproarious scenes in the House after its adjournment marks a new low for Indian Parliament and these images will have a haunting impact for long, the way events in Rajya Sabha resonated in 2011and heralded the eventual fall of the United Progressive Alliance regime. It is early to say if the passage of these Bills despite the government not having the numbers with it, would have a similar snowballing effect. But, it undoubtedly provides the opposition with an issue to mount a concerted campaign.
The second window from which these events can be assessed is economic. Despite the government's claim of "liberating the farmers from injustice they were facing for the last 70 year under the leadership of Narendra Modi", the new laws will be thoroughly scrutinised. Going by the spate of farmers protests under various banners and also the opposition voiced by the BKS, it is certain that not many acquiesce with the government's viewpoint that this path alone has capacity to provide a path out of the crisis in the farm sector.
Besides the economic perspective and the manner in which the Bills were passed, the events have to be seen from the political prism too because it provides understanding of the BJP's commitment to democratic practices and willingness to work with other parties in building consensus on vital issues.
It makes sense to recall a conversation I had with Modi in the middle of 2012. Although the BJP was in complete disarray with more foes, than friends, and Modi was yet to emerge as a frontrunner for being the party's electoral mascot and its prime ministerial candidate, I was working on his biography and he had agreed to grant access for an unauthorised biography.
During one session, I asked if he was confident of securing allies in the event of being nominated to lead his party in the next parliamentary polls. The poser was in the backdrop of several allies, most importantly Nitish Kumar, being personally antagonistic towards him. His answer was simple:
"When Atalji became prime minister for the first time in 1996 – we got no new allies – Akali Dal and Shiv Sena had been with us earlier. In 1998, the situation changed – the party was the same, the leaders were the same. But this time, because we got more seats, more allies came to us (laughs) – then when the seats got reduced – the many allies deserted us. The issue, therefore, is that the number of allies always depends on the winnability of the BJP. If allies are of the view that by associating with the BJP, chances of winning more seats increases, they will join hands with us regardless of anything. But, if they think that BJP will become a burden, they will leave us."
It was clear that Modi believed that coalitions were little but transactional relationships. It was reflective of the dominant mercantile mentality in Gujarat where most relationships are weighed solely from the window of profit and loss. Politics and alliances are solely for 'gain' and not for the avowed vikas (development) or parivartan (transformation).
In his first tenure as prime minister, Modi's relationship with most allies was not harmonious. The BJP, under his leadership, rode roughshod over partners because it had a majority of its own accord. Leaders accumulated hubris for they were not dependent on allies for survival.
Coalition partners were not consulted on important decisions and coordination committee meetings among NDA partners, became few and far between. Several minor partners deserted the NDA—for instance in Bihar where Jitan Ram Manjhi and Upendra Kushwaha cut ties with the NDA. Through 2018, it appeared that the 2019 parliamentary polls would not be a single-issue election and instead be an aggregate of state polls. As a result, when seat negotiations began in early 2019, the BJP made concessions to its largest allies, Shiv Sena and Janata Dal (U).
However, the terrorist strike in Pulwama and the government's counter strike in Balakot altered the narrative of the polls and Modi personally came out trumps. As a result, arrogance returned within the party. The Shiv Sena's decision to part ways with the BJP after the Maharashtra state elections chiefly stemmed from haughtiness of several BJP leaders, chiefly Amit Shah and Devendra Fadnavis, both of whom slighted Uddhav Thackeray. Significantly, there were no significant disagreements over policy between the two parties.
The BJP and the Sena remain ideological fellow-travellers which explains the discomfort of senior Congress leaders with its coalition leader in Maharashtra. But the BJP has made no headway in rebuilding bridges with the Thackerays. Contrarily, the BJP's handling of the situation within Bollywood post Sushant Singh Rajput's tragic demise and the party's role in fanning loose-cannons like Kangana Ranaut, who has been personally abusive towards the Maharashtra chief minister and his family, has done little to open possibilities of rapprochement between BJP and the Sena.
This is the second instance of a major BJP ally differing on a policy issue after the 2019 polls. Early last year, JD(U) was not on the same page with the government on the issue of Citizenship Amendment Act and now the Akali Dal has disagreed on an issue that has direct impact with its core electoral constituency. Over the next few weeks, the Akali Dal would review its continuance in NDA and if this long-time partner decides to go separately, it will hit the BJP's prospects in urban Punjab.
Besides possible opposition within the sangh parivar, the BJP faces the risk of being left with no significant ally in heartland states. At the moment, barring the JD(U), the BJP is left with minor partners in the bigger states. Likely political isolation despite having a comfortable majority in Lok Sabha will have its fallout and if public mood turns against the regime, the BJP will soon have more than a challenge on hand.
The writer is a Delhi-based author and journalist. Besides other books, he also wrote Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin
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