Modi’s yielding to farmers' demands is a major victory for the protesters, but it’s also a calculated manoeuvre before crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and elsewhere.
For a populist with a penchant for talking tough and portraying the image of an unyielding strong leader, Friday's address to the nation withdrawing three contentious farm laws must have been a huge embarrassment for the Indian prime minister. The three laws brought in last year had triggered sustained protests across large swathes of India
Having stubbornly refused for almost a year to repeal laws that the government said were designed to loosen rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce, the withdrawal announcement is a reminder that even the mightiest can be brought to their knees.
The repeal is a shot in the arm for not only the striking farmers, but also for the disparate opposition, which remains hopelessly divided despite their distaste for Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its policies. It renews hope that a government with a brute majority in Parliament can be brought to heel, and that there is still room for dissent in the country.
Much of Modi’s persona has so long been built around his impressive ability to appear robust. Be it the debilitating Covid-19 pandemic, which devastated India and claimed tens of thousands of lives, or the Chinese intrusion into Indian territory from across the border, Modi has always got away with his trademark bluster. He brushes aside all criticism and claims victory all the time. Yet his surrender in the face of farmers’ protests is something that has not often been seen.
Modi and his BJP are known for riding roughshod over the opposition. The last time his government capitulated to popular demand was way back in 2015 when it withdrew legislation that made acquiring land far easier for industries. Since then, the government has seemingly steamrolled everything in its way.
Modi systematically silenced protests over the Citizens (Amendment) Act of 2019 that, for the first time, made one’s religion a criteria for Indian citizenship. It was also critcised for being prejudiced against Muslims.
Modi also relentlessly cracked down on activists and academics who spoke out against the government. And there certainly wasn’t any dearth of attempts by the government to derail the farmer protests. Modi supporters campaigned to label them as Khalistanis – a secessionist Sikh group. Also, the son of the federal home minister is in jail after a speeding vehicle that reportedly belonged to him drove through a crowd of farmers, killing several of them.
Ultimately, though, the government offensive against the farmers has come to naught.
Farmers have reasons to be unhappy, especially since Modi’s promise of doubling their income by 2022 sounds increasingly hollow. Official statistics show that Indian farmers´ income has plummeted – it is now as little as 27 rupees (0.36 US dollars) a day – while the debt burden on them has multiplied. Currently, each farmer in the country is, on average, saddled with a debt of around 74,000 rupees (996 US dollars).
For Modi and his party, the farm laws were meant to be a panacea for India’s agrarian community, who make up some 58 percent of the voters. The government argued the laws would address many of the problems that hobbled the sector, including small landholdings and a lack of remunerative prices.
But the farmers - predominantly those in the influential states of Punjab, Haryana, and parts of Uttar Pradesh - were unconvinced, insisting that the entry of private players resulting from the laws would deprive them of their livelihoods.
The farmers were unrelenting in opposing the laws. Further raising their suspicions was the manner in which proposed new legislation was bulldozed by the ruling party in Parliament without much of a debate.
The government hoped the protests would eventually peter out, but the farmers turned out to be far more persistent than expected. They braved both the elements and the government’s cold shoulder while camping out in the open in the outskirts of Delhi for months. Some 700 of them died during the protests, but the farmers refused to yield ground.
Instead, it was Modi who blinked. Crucial state elections are just months away in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and elsewhere, and there are signs that the ferment among farmers is going to hurt the BJP.
Though a very large community, differences in caste and religion have traditionally divided the farmers, and they were always considered an amorphous voting bloc. But these protests brought about rare unity – particularly in western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab – and the BJP could ill-afford to hold elections without attempting to assuage them. The elections in Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest state – are seen as the semifinal to the general elections scheduled for 2024, and clearly Modi is not willing to take chances.
Modi’s capitulation to the farmers is therefore a calculated risk. He is trying to cut his losses while attempting to bring back into the fold a large section of voters who felt slighted. The series of events surrounding the ill-fated farm laws may not have followed the script the prime minister desired, but neither are they insurmountable for him.
Modi remains popular and his party enjoys a commanding majority in parliament. This current setback may have given the opposition a sliver of hope, but it alone will not rejuvenate its more dispirited members. They would still need to close ranks and zero in on a narrative that could help them to turn the tables on Modi.
The fiasco over farm laws has surely dented Modi, but whether it benefits the opposition remains to be seen.
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