Narendra Modi’s admission that the BJP made a mistake by supporting the land acquisition bill in parliament last year has highlighted the mindless populism which has been hampering the country’s development.
According to the prime minister, the BJP stood by the Manmohan Singh government when it was rushing through the bill in an attempt to score brownie points with the electorate.
Yet, the Congress suffered a massive defeat in the general election a few months later. The outcome suggested that the farmers had not been impressed by the legislation as the average people had not been with either the food security law or the other so-called “rights-based” initiates such as the right to education.
The BJP, however, had gone along with the Congress on the land law presumably because it thought that it would be politically unwise to oppose such a welfare measure.
It was a tactical mistake which has now enabled Rahul Gandhi to say that he remembered how Rajnath Singh, then sitting in the opposition, had thumped his desk when the bill was passed.
Modi was then the Gujarat chief minister and, therefore, had no say in the decision-making processes of the BJP’s parliamentary party. But, as an important member of the BJP, he could have made a behind-the-scene intervention to caution the party against step which many were fearing even then, including the Congress’s Anand Sharma, that it would hamper industrial growth.
This was also the fear which was being expressed by the “pink papers” dealing with economics. But, such is the need for posturing among Indian politicians that they will support any step which appears on the surface to be pro-poor but whose effect can be exactly the opposite in the long run.
The land law falls in this category. By making the process of acquiring farm lands enormously complicated, what the law has done is to pave the way for stalling industrial progress since the industrialists will not have the time, the money and the patience to endure the labyrinthine process of buying land.
The end result will be that the jobs fostered by industrial growth will not be available. So, the farmer may be able to hold on to his land for the time being, but his children, too, will have no option but to be cultivators in the absence of employment opportunities.
The resultant fragmentation of holdings between successive generations will entail a fall in productivity and a rise in familial and social tension.
If the Congress and its re-energized vice-president are blind to these realities, the reason is that they believe that their pro-farmer stand will help them emerge from the dark hole of defeat in which they currently find themselves.
Modi’s mistake was that he missed the chance of presenting a holistic picture last year about what might happen if the law was implemented.
Even today, he and his party are not as vocal in their articulation of the long-term deficiencies of the law as they should. The reluctance is probably due to their fear that they will be perceived as anti-farmer if they do so.
But, it is the country which will suffer in the event of being caught between a cynical opposition and an apprehensive ruling party which is afraid to speak its mind.
The land law is not the only occasion when populism has triumphed over ground realities. Another example is the opposition to nuclear power plants, especially after the Fukushima disaster, by activists like S.P. Udayakumar who organized agitations against the setting up of the Kudankulam nuclear station in Tamil Nadu.
The Shiv Sena, too, has been opposing the proposed Jaitapur plant in Maharashtra. The fact, however, that Udayakumar lost his election as an Aam Admi Party nominee last year, and the Sena failed to be the first party of the saffron alliance in Maharashtra this year, shows that the voters have not been impressed by their stance, which must have been perceived as anti-development.
If the opponents of nuclear power are unwilling to see that it will remain the only source of energy after India runs out of fossil fuels like coal in a hundred years, the critics of the India-US nuclear deal closed their eyes to the fact that it will enable India to break out of the isolation in which it found itself after being ostracized by the international community for the Pokhran blasts of 1974 and 1998 and become a legitimate nuclear power.
Ironically, the BJP was one of the parties which joined the communists in opposing the deal simply because it felt that India’s entry into the company of the Big Five will give a boost to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Modi’s charge of his party having made a mistake by supporting the UPA’s land bill in 2014 is applicable to this decision to oppose the nuclear deal in 2008.
As is obvious, in both cases, it was electoral consideration which guided the BJP and not national interests – just as the current positioning of the Congress to the “left of Marx”, as Arun Jaitley has said, is the result of the same impulse.
Unless the parties shed ideological bias and partisan lenses while considering issues of national interest, the country’s progress will be stalled.