West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s call for cooperation among non-NDA counterparts in other States to support farmers agitating against three controversial laws made in June 2020 seems part of a larger political project. It is meant to go beyond aiding the farmers, who fear that these laws could make them more vulnerable to market fluctuations. But the focus on farm laws, which the Government says would make farming more competitive and remunerative, is an important start. While the Government reiterated this week that MSP for various crops would continue, the fact remains that regardless of the merits of these laws, they were made without adequate consultations with parties, States and the stakeholders. After a meeting with farmer leaders from Uttar Pradesh, Ms. Banerjee said she accepted their request to speak to other Chief Ministers who are not in the NDA. While reiterating her demand to repeal the three laws, she has proposed a virtual conference of CMs with the farmers and a joint letter to the Centre on the issue. Many CMs are likely to agree with her, despite political rivalries among them. At least two other CMs who were elected along with her in the recent Assembly elections share her position on the farm laws — Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan and Tamil Nadu’s M.K. Stalin. In Kerala, the previous Assembly had in December 2020 passed a unanimous resolution seeking the repeal of these laws.
That said, all non-NDA CMs may not be willing to be part of a joint platform because of their individual calculations and expediency, and the fear of retribution by the Centre. Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal, for instance, had sought the support of other CMs against unilateral actions by the Centre that curtailed the powers of his government. Ms. Banerjee had vociferously supported him, but Mr. Kejriwal was not reciprocative when she raised concerns of overreach by the Centre. The recent joint efforts by some CMs to persuade the Centre to withdraw its previous vaccination policy did not get wholehearted support from others. The CMs of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, Naveen Patnaik and Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, have sought to keep the Centre in good humour. Nevertheless, the joint efforts by CMs did lead to a change in the vaccination policy. Joint strategy on farm laws could be more difficult as their impact is uneven across States. But a broader point raised by Ms. Banerjee, about the Centre’s tendency to ignore the States while formulating policy, is salient. She has also called for a continuing mechanism for CMs to cooperate on issues of Centre-State relations. Turning this into a combative platform could do more harm than good, but it is a suggestion worth pursuing. Cooperative federalism, a concept that Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocates, can be pursued more meaningfully through continuous and harmonious communication with CMs. A conversation on farm laws could be a good beginning.