By Tabu Agarwal:
Almost nine months after the Union Cabinet passed the land acquisition ordinance, the Modi government has been forced to abandon one of its key reforms. Yielding to inner-party pressures, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his monthly radio programme ‘Mann ki Baat‘, said his Government will allow the land ordinance to lapse due to the opposition it faced, but no one should be allowed to misguide the farmers. He also added that the government will include 13 points to reform the land acquisition law to benefit farmers. In a stunning reversal, the Narendra Modi Government, after months of standing firm, finally gave up and agreed to return almost entirely to the text of the Land Acquisition Act that was passed during UPA’s tenure in 2013. Out of the 15 amendments in the NDA Bill, the BJP decided to withdraw six key amendments including the consent clause.
Amid opposition’s claims that the Modi Government had taken a ‘U-turn’ on the land bill, the BJP scouted Union Ministers, Chaudhary Birendra Singh and Nirmala Sitharaman, to back its decision. Both, in their respective interactions with the media, reiterated how executive orders to include 13 sections in the ordinance would have helped the farmers. The government’s prompt response in this regard becomes noteworthy, especially when its ministries have been asked to set up quick response teams to counter negative news.
The decision of suspending the ordinance comes at a time when opinion on the contentious bill has remained polarised along several ideological and political lines. The tactic of elimination of social impact assessment, in addition to the exemption of specific projects from existing rules of consent, has created a stir not only among members of the joint parliamentary committee, but also within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Sangh affiliates.
Moreover, Modi has been fighting an anti-farmer image ever since the NDA embarked on a massive industrial growth oriented mission. His government has been slammed by the opposition, which labelled him as anti-farmer, much in conformity to Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s “suit-vuit ki sarkaar” comment. Such negative opinions had endangered Modi’s political image that is especially harmful in the wake of upcoming Bihar elections, where the stakes for his party are quite high. If Bihar rules BJP out, it will, argues political commentator Neerja Chowdhury, blow out the BJP’s candle at a politically crucial juncture. Keeping electoral exigencies in mind, the government, appears to have decided that discretion is the better part of valour.
While some BJP members feel that the opposition, led by the Congress has eventually managed to force the hand of the Government, others have simply questioned the intent behind tabling such a crucial legislation through the ordinance route. In a sense, the Modi machinery was well aware of the hurdles that the bill could run into. Many in the Government hoped that by promulgating and re-promulgating the bill, the NDA would eventually be able to bring the parliament to a consensus on its version of the land bill. In this respect, Modi and his advisers had clearly underestimated, overlooked and failed to comprehend the power of a united opposition.