Why a strategic turnaround by Modi on the farm laws

The Modi government in India has repealed farm laws as it does not want to pay a political price in coming state elections, writes Jagdish Rattanani for South Asia Monitor 

Jagdish Rattanani Nov 25, 2021
The Modi government in India has repealed farm laws

There are many ways to see the sudden change of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s position on the farm laws that have led to sustained protests by thousands of farmers across the farming belt in northern India for more than a year now. By any account, the change from a hardline position that we’ll do anything but repeal these laws to an apology for these laws marks a dramatic turn of events. There is much celebration that the Prime Minister had to give in in the face of resistance, and who better to teach him a lesson or two in humility than the hardy farmers of India who could see through a game in farmland corporatization they despised. In a bitterly divided nation, expect reactions to follow known political positions. 

Yet, a few narratives cannot be missed. The action comes close to key state elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The former has been the central arena of protests against the farm laws and has already cost the BJP a political ally. New allies are waiting but won’t shake hands till the hated laws are out of the way. In Uttar Pradesh, there have been signals that the laws will extract a political cost. Both state elections will determine a lot for the political landscape of India, given their size and significance. It is impossible to miss the case that this is a government giving in not because it has changed its stance or position but because it is now unwilling to pay the political price for its actions.  

Strategic pullback 

This means that the BJP has led a strategic withdrawal to get something much more valuable to the party. The announcement on the Guru Nanak Jayanti (birth anniversary of Sikhism's founder) will further be seen in this light, not dissimilar to the manner in which Modi suddenly visited the Rakabganj Gurudwara in Delhi in December 2020 in an attempt seen as a way to appease agitating farmers, many Sikhs among them, without giving anything in return. There, the ‘granthi’ (priest) reading the ‘paath’ preached, even as the Prime Minister bowed, that there was no use visiting a holy place without a change of heart. 

The trouble with an event management star is that everything begins to be seen in a narrow light of projections and imagery and transactions. Even a serious change of heart is difficult to accept as such. 

Given that, it is pretty clear that there is no change of heart here. In his address, the Prime Minister made it clear: “I want to say sincerely that perhaps there must have been some deficiency in our penance that we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to the farmer brothers.” A charitable explanation would be to let that pass and argue that what else could the PM on a backfoot say. We could grant him an honourable exit and let that statement be. 

Yet, the Prime minister is saying, literally, that the farmers did not get the “truth”, whatever that means. Is he then saying that the farmers of India stuck with the “lies” fed to them and the entire government machinery could not show them the correct path? This path for the BJP has been to sign up for a new age of farmland neo-liberalism ruled supposedly by “efficient” markets and controlled actually by large corporates. These are important questions and the last word has not yet been written on the desperate attempt to corporatize large swathes of rural India. If the withdrawal is strategic, and if the BJP does not pay a political price for its misadventure and the late withdrawal, this battle will come back in some way.

BJP loses high moral ground 

The second and more important narrative not to be missed politically is that the BJP today stands on no high ground when it comes to the votes.  The party is able to track the public mood and take hard action where required to protect its votes and to consolidate its rise to power. The longer the BJP stays, the more of an imprint its brand of politics leaves on the nation, and this is what the BJP wants to achieve. What is the value of three farm laws in the face of an overwhelming majority in UP and Punjab?  

The latter gives the party a license to do much more, possibly change the very constitutional base on which the nation has been built since independence. So, the laws can go if the votes are banked. The recent warning by Meghalaya Governor Satya Pal Malik that BJP leaders can’t enter many villages in UP and that the BJP won’t win the elections if the farm laws stay had therefore been taken seriously by the party. 

In one way, this is expedient, even dishonest. But equally, a finely tuned ear to the mood of the people is an important lesson that many political parties now almost in the wilderness can learn. This does not mean breaking on principles, and make no mistake that nothing in the thinking of the BJP leadership has changed on the matter. But an active party machinery, thinking and responding on issues and how they might play out, with a clear goal to electoral victory to enable it build on its mission, is a lesson not to be missed. 

Farmers have won now 
There could also be unexpected surprises for the BJP, given the force and time it spent to push the laws. That lost goodwill can still spring some ugly dividends. It is not out of order that Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has said the agitation will not be immediately withdrawn, something the Prime Minister asked for. After having struggled for over a year, with several hundred farmer lives lost and abuse heaped on protestors, including the attempt by the BJP to label them as terrorists, it will take some time for the farmers to go back. In early remarks, Tikait has said they would want the action to happen in Parliament before formally withdrawing the agitation. 

Today, it is the farmers who have won and it is not easy to say what this victory means for farmers as a political force like never before.  

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press/editor@thebillionpress.org)

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