Government's steamrolling of farm bills in Rajya Sabha and the protests- A Critical Analysis

fortnight ago, India witnessed one of the ugliest scenes in the upper house of the parliament with most of the major newspapers of the country comparing it with a battlefield. The main reason behind the chaos was the two controversial farm bills, which according to the Prime Minister was “a watershed moment.” The opposition and even some of the allies of the Bhartiya Janta Party called the bills to be “anti-farmer.”

Protests were organized by various farmers’ unions and organizations around the country. Despite such strong reactions against the bills, the Farmers’ and Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 – were passed by a voice vote and without a division of votes. ‘The Telegraph’ accused the government of ‘steamrolling’ parliamentary procedure.

The Rajya Sabha witnessed chaos as the bills were being passed. A section of opposition leaders tried to snatch documents from the Chairperson and even broke his microphone. Things came to a head when Deputy Chairperson Harivansh Narayan Singh did not consider the opposition’s demand for a division of votes on a resolution to send the two bills to Select Committee. The government raised a motion to suspend eight MPs for the chaos on the previous day. After the motion was passed, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, asked the suspended members to leave. The suspended MPs initially refused to leave and later sat on a dharna outside the building of the Parliament. The opposition sharply criticised the suspension of the MPs. Deputy Chairman, Harivansh Narayan Singh serving tea to the suspended MPs during their protest outside the Parliament also made the headlines.

The government passed the bills even after facing protests from farmers’ unions and organizations all around the country, but this is not the first instance of such nature. In fact, the Narendra Modi led government has accused the Opposition of misleading the farmers as they (farmers) took to the roads fiercely protesting the bills which seem to be benefitting corporate prices over MSPs. The opposition has said that the two farm bills are aimed at benefitting big corporates by doing away with the MSP or Minimum Support Price and demanded that the controversial bills be sent to Select Committee for scrutiny. The Congress, in a late-night conference, likened the day’s proceedings in the upper house as a grave, unprecedented attack on our democracy. Congress’s general secretary, K.C.Venugopal, alleged that BJP MP Bhupendra Yadav whispered something in the deputy chairman’s ear after which a voice vote was taken for passing the bill. Several other political parties and organisations have criticised the government’s move to speed track the bills through a voice vote.

The urgency with which the three farm bills have been passed may have fateful implications for parliamentary democracy and federalism. The rushing through of the three farm bills despite almost all opposition parties pressing for in-depth discussion may go down as the lowest point in Indian Parliamentary democracy. The request of the opposition parties for the division of the vote was rejected by the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha who instead allowed the legislation to pass through by dubious voice-vote. This was unprecedented as the members have a right to vote in favour or in against the bill. The presiding officer was under an obligation to accede to this legitimate democratic request.

The opposition parties bolstered by the farmers’ protests in Punjab and Haryana are standing united for now. The National Democratic Alliance has lost the Shiromani Akali Dal, one of its staunchest allies. This time it appears that the usual aggressive rhetoric and inducements might not be enough, as the government raises the MSP for wheat, to cool the conditions both inside and outside the house.

-Krishna Kapil Rastogi