Beyond just persuasion

Farmers and others having langar during their protesting against anti-farm laws at GT Karnal Road in New Delhi on December 20, 2020.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

In light of protests against the new farm laws, the Centre has attempted to educate farmers — a form of instrumental reasoning based on exchange of superior information and data — to convince them of the merits of its reform agenda. Since it is presumed that complex matters of economic policy are beyond the intellectual capacities of agrarians, policy implementation often becomes a teacher-pupil dialogue, where persuasion is akin to enlightening ‘lesser intellectuals’ to the merits of technocratic governance. If people (in this case farmers) ‘know better’, they would support the government.

However, persuasion is a qualitatively distinct psychological process from mere information-gathering and ‘rational’ decision-making. Most notably, in circumstances that involve vulnerability, it always includes an element of trust. But, do the farmers of India trust their government? This situation is vexed by the precarity of the agricultural sector. In 2019, as many as 10,281 farmer suicides were reported. Small and marginal farmers own only 47% of the total crop area. Farmers’ incomes are expected to rise “by about 9% to 16,017.96 rupees ($214) this year”, but there is still a high degree of financial precarity in the sector. Considering this, one can sympathise with the anxieties about disruptions in the Mandi system. Farmers recognise the exploitative nature of the existing supply-chains. But, how will they be persuaded that the alternative is better? Certainly not by signalling from the government, that mistakes information as a panacea for trust deficits.

So, what needs to be done? Interpersonal dialogue is a good choice (something that is already being done). Trust is a ‘psychological attitude’ that reflects ‘a positive expectation of behavior’ and it can be built between individuals more easily than between groups. This also makes possible interactive problem-solving. But, for this to work, farmers would have to be convinced of the government’s sincerity. Negotiations should not be instruments to pacify protesters. This requires, firstly, public commitments by key government functionaries with high degrees of social credibility, to reassure farmers of their intent to make policymaking an inclusive process. Secondly, symbolic gestures such as visits by key government functionaries to grassroots areas may help.

Shared vulnerability

The most potent pathway for the government to build trust with farmers would be to develop what I call ‘shared vulnerability’. To accept risks associated with agricultural reforms, farmers would have to trust the government’s competence and willingness. This can be best achieved if farmers believe that the government’s self-interests are also being directly served through the success of these farm laws (this may seem tautological in a democratic society, but it is not, since politicians’ promises are frequently left unfulfilled). Simply put, the government needs to raise the stakes for itself. One way to do this would be to treat the promise of doubling farmers’ income as the determinant yardstick to judge the success of the NDA regime and actively invite electoral costs in case the government fails to deliver.

Lastly, if specific quantitative markers or indicators are put in place to judge the success of the new farm laws at every stage, monitoring and feedback loops can become important sources of trust. This would require distinguishing clearly between deficiencies in implementation that lead to tweaks and course correction and a conclusive failure of the reform agenda requiring a dramatic overhaul or potential reversion (opt-out clause). Certainly, effects of policy reform cannot be realised in the short term, but neither should farmers be asked to concede to an indefinite process of realisation.

Building trust for the purpose of persuasion is not about providing more information and creating rational disciples. It is a process of proving one’s sincerity, credibility, and moral character.

Ameya Singh is a DPhil (PhD) student in

Area Studies (South Asia) at the

University of Oxford

Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 7:15:37 PM |

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