The NDA has eventually eaten crow on the controversial amendments to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, but this must not be seen as a victory for Congress as it is more of a consequence of rumblings within the party. The return of UPA’s Land Bill must be causing unease for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-Arun Jaitley trio because NDA-initiated amendments to the 2013 Act had definitely become a prestige issue for the party. Leave aside the vehement opposition by Congress, the ruling troika seemingly failed to gain its own party members’ confidence on the issue. The move to bring back the social impact assessment and consent clause is seemingly a result of constant clamour from the party’s rank and file.
The government climb-down on the Bill was expected since day one. It was not only that the ordinance was promulgated in a tearing hurry but also that the entire exercise of amending the Land Act was not in sync with BJP’s nascent rise in the rural India. The changes forced through the ordinance were not connected with the existing realties of the rural economy and governance set-up of land resources.
NDA’s amendments to the Act came against the backdrop of deceleration in income and minimal job opportunities in the rural economy resulting from two successive crop failures. It was politically incorrect for Modi to put his prestige behind liberalisation on land acquisition at a time when the rural population was continuing to reel under distress and farmer suicides were grabbing headlines. Moreover, it was the first time the BJP had made crucial inroads among rural electorate.
To the surprise of the BJP, ministers and MPs developed cold feet on the bill and no mass movement was ever initiated to allay the fears of farmers and labours on the land bill despite clear dictates from Modi-Shah. In fact, BJP leaders found themselves in a fix because the party openly favoured a pro-farmer bill in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls.
The most shocking disconnect came from governance of land. State governments had started acquiring land more deftly, accommodating concerns of farmers and industries at the state level. Recent acquisitions in UP, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are a testimony to it. The Modi government, however, in its overconfidence, ignited land politics across the country and, in turn, weakened the efforts of states. Eventually, after July 15 meeting of the governing council of the NITI Aayog, the government was forced to take the state route on Land Bill as land is a subject in the concurrent list of the Constitution.
The BJP’s strategy to project the Land Bill as one of the major reforms generated needless hoopla around it and setback for the party, subsequently. Land is a sensitive subject and more astute handling was expected by the government. A recent study by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative confirms that central ministries made 219 acquisitions for developmental projects between January 1 and June 30, but not a single acquisition was carried out under the ordinance. Data further corroborates that land was not the only hurdle for attracting investments and therefore all haste and hubris on Land Bill was unwarranted.
The immediate catalyst for this dent on hubris may be Bihar elections where land issues always play a major political role. It is time for the party to go back to the drawing board to rework its beleaguered rural and reform strategies.
This may still be an embarrassment for PM Modi but BJP MPs must be feeling relieved after the withdrawal of the controversial amendments, which they strongly perceived to be disjointed from the ground reality. Now, BJP must hope that public memory is short, as that’s the only way for them to recover from this setback.
(First published on dailyo.in)