The party’s CMs have kept the farmers’ issue boiling, enough for the Govt to take note. Can the leadership build on this?
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had to clarify in every public speech within days that the new farm laws are progressive and he is just as protectionist about farmers’ interests, then the latter’s agitation has worked. If Home Minister Amit Shah is trying to douse the fire and attempting reconciliatory talks after his own partymen are labelling the stir as a Khalistani and Maoist plot, then the kisan unions have had their way. And though the protesters have largely stayed away from politicians on principle, the fact that Punjab’s Congress Chief Minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, has been consistently pushing their cause, no matter how self-serving that might be, has given the farmers’ campaign a political heft that has blunted the edge of the Centre’s unilateralism. In fact, it is the first time that Congress Chief Ministers like Singh and Chhattisgarh’s Bhupesh Baghel have turned the tide of national discourse by crusading against the farm Acts and forcing a discussion on consensus politics, something that the central Congress leadership has fallen far short of. Singh’s Government has not only brought its own amendment Bills against the farm Acts, Congress MLAs are on a relay dharna in Delhi demanding an audience with the President, who may not entertain a challenge to the Central laws. But at least Singh has given the Congress a talking point at a time when it’s languishing by the wayside. Of course, the Punjab Government could have simply brought in its own law to pick up all State produce at Minimum Support Price (MSP), regardless of the Central laws that allow farmers access to wider markets but throw them at the risk of being cheated out of a fair price given the competition. There are fears that the older regulated system, while co-existing, would be weakened by a parallel market and Singh played on these by pushing an amendment to the Central law itself, knowing full well that it was a negative rather than assertive action but would be more politically loaded. The first amendment says that the sale of wheat and paddy (which are the State’s cash crops) will be valid only if the seller pays a price equal to or greater than the MSP announced by the Central government and that any violation would be punishable. The second Bill reintroduces the market fees or licences for private players outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis, which the Central law has abolished. This it says will be used to create a distress fund for small and marginal farmers; hence is populist. The third Bill attacks the central Act that gives unlimited power of stocking essential commodities to traders and reassigns that right to itself, arguing that production, supply and distribution of goods make for a State subject. Punjab is also planning to tweak the definition of a “trade area”, where farmers, traders and electronic trading/transaction platforms are given freedom to deal in farmers’ produce without any restrictions, to cover its limits. It is impossible for the Centre or food majors to agree to such clauses but Singh has scored over the might of the ruling BJP or any sane argument by crusading with zeal and symbolism. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Baghel, too, have pushed amendment Bills but with not as many punishing clauses. But the three have certainly built momentum on an issue that matters across heartland India and have sustained and mobilised a movement around it, strong enough to give the Congress its first cogent tool as an Opposition.
In fact, strategy or not, the three Congress Chief Ministers are not just holding on to their turfs but are articulating positions on national issues. Baghel and Gehlot have been warning against the brutal communalisation of personal freedoms implicit in the proposed “love jihad” laws by BJP-ruled States. Singh has refused the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) entry without his permission. Unless there is a strategy to deflect attention from the central leadership, the Congress chieftains are doing pretty well as the voice of the Opposition on their own. The problem is people still want to hear the central leadership and expect it to steer the discourse. But ever since the Hathras rape-murder case, when the Gandhi scions visited the victim’s family amid high drama, they have been silent. In fact, that was a bit of a hit and run given their belligerence as we are yet to hear from them on a follow-up to the case. Contrast that to the Chief Ministers, who have stayed with their respective causes. Also Singh, Gehlot and Baghel have defended the leadership tooth and nail, speaking out against the Congress’ dissenters, saying it was more important to coalesce against the BJP on graver issues than fight among themselves or lampoon the leadership. And that “electoral defeats were not the yardstick for leadership change.” Question is will the Congress leadership reward this loyalty and bring its chieftains forward or use them for fire-fighting? The fact that Singh and Baghel are more popular than Rahul Gandhi in their home States shows that the Congress does have leaders of merit, who collectively have it in them to revive the party and keep it relevant. The Central leadership has no choice but to devolve power and build a semblance of representational democracy in its organisational structure. In fact, the Congress has historically had strong regional leaders. If only it were to nurture their strengths than making their continuity conditional on doing the bidding of its first family, the party’s organisational matrix wouldn’t have been lying in shreds across States. Nor would the grassroots workers go fortune-hunting to other parties, fearing their voice wouldn’t ever matter. Will the Congress learn to identify its assets first?