When scrutinised objectively, one can only conclude that the farm bills had merit and did not deserve their ultimate fate.

It was a sensational turn of events in a high-profile tense impasse between a determined dedicated government convinced of its altruism and a band of equally determined farmers who thought otherwise and had pledged not to return home until the farm laws had been laid to rest in totality without any riders. The Opposition saw this as a dramatic and humbling climbdown for a government and a Prime Minister whose second name according to them was hubris.

Nevertheless, when on 19 November, PM Narendra Modi announced unexpectedly the repeal of the three farm laws, he coincidentally brought into focus the inherent flaws of our national thought process and its negative impact on national discourse. National debate is driven more by emotions than by hard-core logic and palpable facts with political machinations acting as a toxic catalyst.

At the outset, the PM’s statement was a straight-forward apology to the farmers and of having failed the farmers by not being able to convince them. But in reality, it was far more than the obvious. This abrupt course reversal raised a series of existential questions that exposed the dark underbelly of a nation.

First, were these farm laws so diabolical in their intent and so farmer averse in their construct that annulment was inevitable and the only option? Or was it a classic case of political chicanery and disinformation outwitting authenticity and honest intentions? And did this retreat on the part of the government signal a victory for democracy as some newspapers editorialised?

To begin with, one must understand that for decades all political parties have been in agreement that the agricultural industry in India is in dire straits and badly in need of reform.

Accordingly, in September 2020, the Modi government passed the following three bills—the Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, the Essential Commodities Act (Amendment) Bill and the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill—to address at least some of the ills plaguing the agricultural industry.

The main aim of these bills was to allow greater market play in order to attract private investment and technology to better the infrastructure (storage facilities), increase productivity and improve farm incomes.

There has been much debate on the merits and demerits of these bills and there is near unanimity among experts on the validity and timeliness of these proposed changes.

Agriculture expert Ashok Gulati, the Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER, writing in the Indian Express (Offloading excess food grain stocks through open market operations will generate much-needed resources for govt., 22 June 2020) lauded all three bills, describing them as a “game changer”, “more aligned to the likely demand and supply situation” and one that would “instill confidence in the private sector for building large scale storage” to accommodate the “mountains of grain” that the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has accumulated.

More recently, on 2 July 2021, Sharad Pawar, a politician conversant with agricultural issues had called for amendments to the farm bills instead of rejecting them outright.

Now that the farm bills have been withdrawn, what does it mean for the future of farming?

Ashok Gulati responds: “it will keep chugging along the path it has been on for about a decade or so. The agri-GDP growth has been 3.5 per cent per annum in the first seven years of the Modi government—the same as in the first seven years of the Manmohan Singh government… Cropping patterns will remain skewed in favour of rice and wheat, with the granaries of the Food Corporation of India bulging with stocks of grain. The food subsidy will keep bloating and there will be large leakages. The groundwater table in the north-western states will keep receding and methane and nitrous oxide will keep polluting the environment. Agri-markets will continue to be rigged and farm reforms will remain elusive for some time to come unless the promised committee comes up with more…”

Not a very optimistic picture. So, despite concerns about the manner in which the bills were rushed through Parliament and despite the scepticism evinced by the farmers, one thing stands out: when scrutinized objectively, devoid of the distracting political rhetoric, the crippling partisanship and the disturbing communal interjections, one can only conclude that the farm bills had merit and did not deserve their ultimate fate.

Was this really a victory of democracy as claimed by some? The answer is a categorical “no”.

Picturising this spat as a David-Goliath confrontation, the government’s critics have gone to town hailing the government’s retreat as a victory for democracy. Tavleen Singh writing in the Indian Express (Well Done, PM Modi, 22 November 2021) sermonised: “In the end it was not about the farm laws but about democracy and the right to protest. Democracy won. The most powerful Prime Minister India has seen for more than three decades bowed to the wishes of the people last week when he announced the repeal of the three farm laws.”

For one, Modi is no tinpot dictator whose dominance is sustained by the might of an army or KGB-like repressive measures. His power and popularity are a reflection of the will of the majority of Indians vetted by parliamentary elections on two successive occasions. The farm bills were passed as per Constitutional regulations. Therefore, to project this confrontation as a battle between a callous dictator and legitimate public aspiration is a stretch and erroneous interpretation of democracy.

Second, protest is an integral part of a democracy and everyone in a democracy has the right to protest regardless of the virtues of their case. The farmers too were justified in their agitation.

However, when a protest takes a maximalist stance, loses sight of its objective and turns into a vendetta with the sole motive of humbling the other party then it transgresses the principles of democracy and deteriorates into a mobocracy.

The desecration of our symbol of sovereignty on Republic Day, the prolonged blockage of highways and the disruption of rail services were indicative of a violent blackmail that cannot go hand in hand with democratic protest.

Finally, when a violent protest based on faulty information and manipulated by political motives triumphs over bold courageous reform, it certainly does not augur well for the process of democracy or progress of a nation.

The opposition waltzing with schadenfreude may think themselves as victors, the farmers may pat themselves for a successful protest. Little do they realise that the greatest loser in this battle is not the BJP or Modi, but the Indian nation whose progress has been set back several decades by this forced withdrawal. This decision will negatively impact future governments and their confidence to bring in much needed reforms.

The PM in his wisdom and in his capacity as the ultimate elected leader of the country empathising with the misplaced but genuine feelings of the farmers, deemed it appropriate to retract the bills to defuse the spreading rancour and in the larger interest of the nation (there was a suggestion that external forces might exploit the farmers disenchantment to their advantage). We must understand and respect that decision. But let us not kid ourselves that this was a victory of right over wrong and a triumph of democracy. It was neither.