This article aims to develop the case of strategic communications over policy matters to ensure better implementation. The on-going farmers’ protests in India are examined and the different government communications as a response are studied. Lastly, the conceptual framework of policy communications is also explained.
Public Policy communications are an effective tool utilized by agencies of the government to inform, educate and in turn achieve the objectives of the policy. In most developing countries, policy communication is viewed as anchors of a transparent and positive work agenda. As the link between the government and its citizen, effective communication is crucial for the successful implementation of the public policy.  Motivating, persuading and information- sharing are the basic functions of an effective communication strategy, Hence, as an essential prerequisite for execution of public policy, communication has transpired an important role in all aspects of development policy.
Iris Marion Young, a contemporary political theorist, in her book on Inclusion and Democracy, emphasizes that inclusive political communication is key to the legitimacy and success of democracy. She argues: “Law and policy are democratically legitimate to the extent that they address problems identified through broad public discussion with remedies that respond to reasonably reflective and undominated public opinion. The associational activity of civil society functions to identify problems, interests, and needs in the society; public spheres take up these problems, communicate them to others, give them urgency, and put pressures on state institutions to institute measures to address them. Young then also concludes that, “The democratic legitimacy of public policy, moreover, depends partly on the state institutions being sensitive to that communication process. The moral force of the processes of public communication and its relations to policy, then, rests in part on a requirement that such communication be both inclusive and critically self-conscious. 
Farm Laws and its Passage
In September, three contentious farms laws were passed by the Parliament, that were first introduced as Ordinances in the month of June. The three laws, that have now generated massive nationwide protests are, The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. While the government claims that the new laws introduce much need reforms in the agriculture market, will lift trade restrictions, reduce corruption and finally liberalize the agricultural market. Farmers, on the other hand, fear that these bills will undermine the APMC (Agriculture Produce Market Committee) regulated ‘mandi’ system, erode the government guaranteed MSP (Minimum Support price) and make farmers vulnerable to the market forces.
In the Upper House of the Parliament Rajya Sabha, two out of three farm related legislations were passed by voice vote amidst strong protests by the Opposition. Chaos broke out on the floor of the house as parliamentary proceedings were subverted to pass the bills according to the Opposition. Demands of referring the bills to a Parliamentary Committee were also ignored by the government in this hasty passage. This move alone had garnered a lot of negative press, as to view examinations of the bills by the Select committee as defeat, is a dangerous trend for democracy
Farmers’ Protests and the Communication Gap
Farmer Unions have been protesting the farm laws for months now. Soon after the acts were passed, massive protests engulfed Punjab. For nearly two months, these protests largely remained local with invitations extended from the Centre to overcome the discord to the protesting farmers were declined. Meanwhile, protestors in Punjab disrupted rail traffic which led to claims of shortage of coal at the thermal plant as no goods trains entered Punjab for one and a half month. On November 13th, 32 farm unions were invited by Centre and the first round of talks were held between three central ministers and the farmers. As the discussions remained inconclusive, mostly protestors from Punjab, Haryana along with protestors form Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand gathered at the Delhi border. Thousands of farmers reached border points from Punjab and Haryana amidst the usage of water cannons and tear gas. Hence, the three contentious farm laws have been vehemently protested by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana, in a nationwide protest since 14th December 2020. Subsequently, the government has held 8 rounds of discussion with leaders from the Farm Unions, with agreements only being formed on 2 of the 4 demands put by the farmers.
While commentating for the Farm laws and the political backlash, Ashok Gulati, an Indian agricultural economist in his article for the Indian Express wrote “I feel there is a gross communication failure on the part of the central government to explain to farmers what these laws are, and how they are intended to benefit them. This communication gap was fully exploited by some political parties and social activists, who themselves are facing an existentialist threat and believe that the Narendra Modi government can do no good for this country. A massive misinformation campaign was launched, saying that these laws are a sell- out to corporate houses, will abolish the MSP system, dismantle APMC mandis, and even capture farmers’ lands. Nothing can be further from the truth.” 
Since the outbreak of massive protests, the government and its ministries have made multiple attempts to communicate and explain polices that are ‘misunderstood’ by the farmers. Communication mostly has been one-way and has focused on bringing out success stories over the benefits of the farm laws. The government has also highlighted farm unions from across the country that are in support of these reforms.
The following are the central communication campaigns undertaken by the Centre to explain these reforms:
November 29 Mann Ki Baat
Speaking of the farm laws, Prime Minister Modi said the farm reform laws have broken the shackles of the farmers and also provided new opportunities to them. In his address to the nation through his monthly radio programme, he said, “”New dimensions are being added to agriculture and its related activities in India. The agricultural reforms in the past few days have also now opened new doors of possibilities for our farmers. The demands that have been made by farmers for years, that every political party, at some point or the other made the promise to fulfil, those demands have been met.”
December 17 Letter to Farmers
In an open letter addressing the farmers, the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar wrote, “I am from a farming family. I have grown up seeing, understanding the challenges of farming. I have seen the distress of untimely rain, the happiness of timely monsoon. These were parts of my growing up. I have also seen the week-long wait to sell crops,”. “As the agriculture minister of the country, my duty is to dispel farmers’ misconceptions, to make every farmer of this country tension-free. It is my duty to expose the conspiracy being hatched to create a wall between the farmers and the Centre,” he wrote in Hindi.
In an open letter written as an reply to Prime Minister Modi and the Agricultural Minister, the farmer unions such as the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee called their statements “factless” and also that the Centre has zero empathy for the farmers.
December 27 Mann Ki Baat
During the December 27th Mann Ki Baat, Prime Minister Modi paid his tribute to several revered Sikh personalities, including the sons of Guru Gobind Singh for their sacrifices. Meanwhile, protesting farmers banged utensils during the radio show to stage their protest. Yogendra Yadav, the Swaraj India chief had said, “On December 27 when the Prime Minister gives his Mann Ki Baat radio address, farmers will say ‘we are tired of listening to your Mann ki Baat, when will you listen to our Mann ki Baat?’ So we will bang utensils so that the noise of his Mann ki Baat doesn’t reach us,”.
Putting Farmers First
In “Putting Farmers First”, a 100-page e-booklet released by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the government asserted that the three farm laws passed in September were result of “two decades of consultation”. The booklet lists measures taken by the government since 2014 to make agricultural profitable and also says “While farmers have made India extremely productive with their sweat and toil, the issue of profitability was always being sidelined because reforms in agriculture and agricultural markets never got priority,”. The government says that the booklet clear the air and mentions the “truth” of has mentioned “what will happen” and “what will not happen” for farmers.
Though efforts have been invested to bridge the communication gap, there are no indications of them being effective on ground. The messages constructed under these campaigns include sweeping generalizations and don’t included critical reasoning. If the messages are being received and understood well by the intended audiences, is difficult to measure. However, it is safe to say that there have been no real breakthroughs on ground. Perhaps the issue is no longer just a communication gap but also a trust deficit. Amidst the farmers’ protests a booklet on ‘PM Modi and his Government’s special relationship with Sikhs’ was also released on the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti. This could be a move to appease the community and earn some social capital over it.
While the government has refused to repeal the three farm laws, both the sides have engaged in several rounds of discussion now. After six rounds of talks between the government and the farmer unions, the Centre agreed to meet two of the four demands raised by the leaders of the union. The government represented by the Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal and MoS Commerce and Industry Som Prakash settled to exclude farmers from the penal provisions of the Commission for the Air Quality Management (CAQM) in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance 2020. The other is non pursual of the draft Electricity Amendment Bill 2020.
On the two out of the four demands being accepted, Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha and working group member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination committee, said: “The talks took place in a somewhat conducive atmosphere. The government had a conciliatory approach today…They were agreeable to discussing how to make the MSP system better but did not commit to give a legal framework. There was some one percent flexibility on part of the government.”
For a holistic understanding of policy communications, it is essential to understand its conceptual framework too. Public policies can generally be categorized as preferred policies and non-preferred policies based on their attributes. Non-preferred policies are those that often suffer conflict and delay in their adoption and implementation. Conflict among concerned parties generally arise with the government’s intention to instigate the fast adoption of the non-preferred public policy. The government imposes their will on the citizens and force them to adopt non-preferred polices, without proper communication over the need and consultation with concerned parties. Hence, citizens become hesitant or show resistance in adopting these policies. 
According to the psychological reactance theory, if the individual is compelled by authority to follow advice, adopt recommendations or make changes, it leads to psychological discontentment. The individual feels that their flexibility is under threat and they are being deprived of personal discretion.
Hence, the three farm reforms fit well in the non-preferred policy category. These reforms though discussed and recommended from across the political spectrum suffered inaction in formulation. However, the current top-down implementation of these reforms with no consultation with the stakeholders has led to trust deficit and hostility. The lack of policy deliberations outside and inside the Parliament during its passage and insufficient policy communications have only exacerbated matters. It is important to note that the general environment of distrust with plenty of fake news leaves citizens angry. As citizens fear change and globalization, it is crucial that media spaces are well utilized by government to mount complete and coherent arguments. After eighth rounds of deliberations, the farmers have only warned to intensify their protests with a show of strength through tractor march on Republic Day. Even the intervention of court to resolve the deadlock has been met with suspicion from the farmers. The recent Supreme Court stay order is now being viewed as a dangerous precedent that blurs lines between the legislature, executive and judiciary. The move of setting up of an expert committee has not been welcomed by the protesting farmer unions.
The course this conflictual discourse will only be evident in the coming months but one thing is clear, commitment to policy communications is quintessential at all stages of policy matters.
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