Farm reform should, and must, be pursued, but that can advance along paths that entail less confrontation.
There is much hand-wringing over the fate of future economic policymaking in India, given that the government has been forced to repeal the farm laws it had adopted, to pursue policy reform. This is misplaced. This is not the first time the present government has taken a step back, after announcing a policy it thought sound. In 2015, it had brought in a law to ratify a 2014 ordinance to amend its predecessor UPA government’s land acquisition law, to make it easier to make land available for infrastructure and industrial projects. However, in the face of robust opposition, it had allowed that Bill to lapse – in the run-up to elections to the Bihar assembly. But that retreat did not prevent the government from going ahead to introduce goods and services tax, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and various other reforms.
Similarly, there is little reason to believe that the present retreat over farm laws will hobble the government for the rest of its term. That is to underestimate both the resilience of Indian democracy and the astuteness of Narendra Modi as a politician. It is possible to envisage an altogether more positive fallout of the farm law repeal. The political leadership could well abandon reliance on its brute majority in the Lok Sabha to pass laws with minimal discussion, and realise the utility of tapping the potential of Parliament for a full-fledged, public debate of the pros and cons of any legislative change and making the rationale for reform part of the public discourse. Especially with the live telecast of parliamentary proceedings and the circulation on social media of pithy debates, a well-argued case for changes to the status quo could be widely disseminated, and the arguments against them clinically invalidated.
The fear that foreign investment would hesitate to come in is misplaced. Such inflows are a function of the Indian economy’s robustness, and the correlation of that with unbending political leadership is weak. Farm reform should, and must, be pursued, but that can advance along paths that entail less confrontation.