Thursday, August 13, 2015

Land Acquisition Amendment Withdrawal - Hasty Retreat or Canny Politics?

Hum Saath Saath Hain - NDA Chief Ministers Talking to Narendra Modi at a NITI Aayog Meet (Source: Indian Express)
In the din of the last three weeks in Parliament, the amendment to the Land Acquisition Act (2013) was shelved without much notice. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, during his meeting at NITI Aayog with the respective state Chief Ministers clearly stated that states will have to take the lead on this matter, since the issue cannot be resolved at the federal level very easily. The numbers in the Rajya Sabha would never allow the passage of such a bill; also, constituents of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) expressed their reservations on the bill repeatedly. Contentious clauses such as the ones on Social Impact Assessment and minimum compensation amounts were hot potatoes that most political parties think were too problematic to their electoral prospects.While it is a pity that electability has become an excuse for not taking decisions on 'sensitive issues' or stalling them into perpetuity, one has to wonder if the government has done the right thing by calling off the matter altogether.

Will it be classified as a hasty retreat for the Modi government? Hardly. The government has still not put out any statement where withdrawal of the bill in the form it stands. In fact, clause-wise amendment withdrawal was a last-ditched effort to get the Parliament functioning, which an acrimonious Opposition led by the sanctimonious mother-son duo disallowed at any cost. Rather, the government decided to spare political capital on a non-issue that has turned out only because of misrepresentation of facts and the intellectual bankruptcy and ineptitude of the media to understand where assistance ends and cronyism begins. Since the Indian National Congress (INC) made it personal by dragging Sushma Swaraj's daughter and husband repeatedly into the picture, the carping that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went personal as seen by Sushma and Arun Jaitley's pointed jabs is laughable to say the least. However, the government can carry on through the ordinance route as it has been doing on some provisions, and let no difference occur.

Can we classify this move as canny politics? Certainly. States have, under the Seventh Schedule of Article 246 of the Constitution of India, the right to frame laws that supercede provisions laid out by the federal government at the 'discretion of the President'. As can be seen in the case of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and increasingly Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, many issues like labour reforms and land acquisition policies under the governments of the states, ruled directly by BJP or its allies, pockets of business friendliness are being created. The specific plan as can be seen and pointed out by several experts, is that the BJP and NDA can create exclusive economic corridors amongst themselves and feed off each others' prosperity and well-being, thus creating stretches of developed zones that put the other states to thinking. For instance, as Mihir Sharma (yes, of the Business Standard fame) had said, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa are all BJP or NDA ruled. An exclusive economic corridor amongst them would do magic on a huge chunk of the country's population, and the resultant synergies can put states like Odisha and West Bengal to serious scrutiny. The model of coopetitive (cooperative+competitive) federalism can be bandided by the BJP as the advantages that states can have with the NDA/BJP rule at the state gelling well with the Center, putting significant political pressure on INC, Trinamool and other state leaders.

In either case, the NDA has all the aces up its sleeve. The impacts can be visible within two years, and the Acche Din for one part of the country can unnerve the state chieftains in other parts. This round goes to the NDA so far, and the INC and its allies, even if they want to, cannot beat this formidable yet unexpected challenge.

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