In the past nine months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of being a "silent PM" for his reluctance to speak on contentious issues such as communalism and black money, and, perhaps a little unfairly, a "missing PM" because of his frequent foreign visits. Therefore it was truly refreshing to see Modi back to his combative self in the Lok Sabha today, during his reply to the president of India's speech. He went after his favourite target, the Congress party. And unlike his tasteless and utterly counterproductive rhetoric during the Delhi elections, his comments today hit where he wanted them to. Modi seemed to be back to the fiery self we saw during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign.
However, on one crucial matter, the prime minister appeared to be completely floundering: the land acquisition ordinance. Now, it is well known that the government brought in the ordinance to make the law more "industry-friendly". This is not a perception concocted by the Opposition and farmers' organisations. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has himself said in the context of the land acquisition ordinance: "Don't make industry and infrastructure bad words". Fair enough. Jaitley accepts the real reason behind the ordinance and we must appreciate his honesty.
But Prime Minister Modi, in his speech today, embarked upon an elaborate justification of the ordinance which mentioned everything except industry. The main reason he cited in his speech was: "Kanoon se kisaano ka bhala nahi ho raha" (The existing land acquisition law isn't benefiting farmers". Ok, let us concede that the PM is right for a moment. So what are the changes Modi is planning so that the law helps the farmers?
According to his ordinance, the consent of the land-holders, who are mostly farmers and tribals, will not be required if the land is being acquired for a number of purposes. These include national security, defence, rural infrastructure including electrification, industrial corridors and housing for the poor.
So basically, Modi is trying to say that the way to ensure that the law benefits farmers, is to snatch away their right to have a say in the acquisition of the land they depend on for their livelihood!
I really wonder which farmers in their right senses would have told Modi that the main problem with the existing land acquisition law is that it gives them too much of a say in the acquisition of their own land. Of course, the prime minister is convinced that farmers don't like the consent clause the UPA inserted in The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. "Had farmers liked your law, you wouldn't have lost the election," Modi taunted the Congress. This is hardly a new argument for Modi. Remember the number of times he cited his electoral victories in Gujarat as proof of his non-culpability in the 2002 pogrom?
The ultimate fig leaf for any government is national security. When a government cites national security to justify a decision, you know it is desperate. When a government in India cites Pakistan in a completely unrelated matter, you can be sure it has nowhere else to hide.
In his speech today, Modi claimed that that defence personnel have come and told him that if they want land for defence installations, they shouldn't be expected to go and ask the permission of the landholders. "Better than that let us tell Pakistan that we are doing this work at this place," Modi said. Yes, the prime minister invoked Pakistan to justify his land acquisition ordinance. But he still failed to mention the concerns of industry like his finance minister was honest enough to do.
I don't know about defence personnel in general, but at least one ex-serviceman, Anna Hazare, didn't seem particularly pleased with the ordinance as he was protesting against the ordinance on the streets of Delhi a few days ago.
Let us leave Hazare and cut back briefly to 2013, when the UPA government was negotiating with political parties on the Land Acquisition Bill. The BJP, led by leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, made a number of suggestions that were in fact more anti-industry and pro-farmer than what the UPA had put forward. Swaraj, with the backing of the then BJP president Rajnath Singh, gave a list of suggestions to then rural development Jairam Ramesh, who was piloting the Bill. In spirit, her suggestions were at complete variance with the ordinance Modi is now presenting. For instance, the Modi government, in which Swaraj and Singh hold key portfolios like external affairs and home, wants to do away with social impact assessment in land being acquired for the above mentioned purposes. In sharp contrast to this, Swaraj wanted the UPA to broaden the process of social impact assessment by including local NGOs and public representatives. She had also complained that the "terms of acquisition are used by companies to increase their profits".
While presenting the Bill in Parliament, Ramesh was gracious enough to credit Swaraj for the amendments proposed by her. He also gave credit to BJP's chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan for his inputs to the legislation. So if, as Modi claims, certain anonymous "chief ministers" voiced their anguish about the 2013 legislation, clearly Chouhan wasn't one of them.
Modi believes that the 2013 land acquisition legislation was a mistake and needs to be corrected. He might be able to push through the ordinance in Parliament, even if it means holding a joint session of both the Houses. But at least he should stop fooling the people about the real intention behind the ordinance.