Modi Repeals Farm Laws: Why No U-Turn on CAA? There Are 5 Angles to This

BJP did take a partial U-turn on CAA. But the complete U-turn on farm laws may be due to a higher political cost.

7 min read
Modi Repeals Farm Laws: Why No U-Turn on CAA? There Are 5 Angles to This
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(This story was first publisged on 20 November 2021 and is being republished in the backdrop of two-years of CAA Bill being passed and the protesting farmers calling of the agitation and leaving Delhi borders.)

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi's announcement that his government will repeal the three farm laws sparked one big question: why didn't the government take a similar U-Turn on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Like the farm laws, the CAA sparked widespread protests. While it is unfair to compare the two moments, it is safe to say that in terms of scale both movements were quite formidable and among the biggest mass protests India has seen in the recent past.

It is quite possible that the Modi government will bring back a modified version of the farm laws after the Uttar Pradesh (UP) polls or if it gets re-elected in 2024. But as of now, it has taken a complete and public U-turn.

Why did it not take a similar U-turn on the CAA as it did on the farm laws? There are five aspects to this.


1. Partial U-Turn Through Backdoor on CAA

The government actually did take a partial U-turn on the CAA. It has been close to two years since the CAA was passed and yet no one has been given citizenship under the law as the government is yet to frame the rules for it.

In July 2021, the government asked for a six-month extension to frame the rules for the CAA. In August, Union Minister of State for Home, Nityanand Rai, said that citizenship can be given under the law only after the rules are notified.

So basically, the law has upset Muslims who say it is discriminatory and a section of people in Assam, who fear it will lead to an influx of Bangladeshi Hindus.

However, the government's 'U-turn' on the CAA is still a partial one and nowhere as publicised as Modi's public statement on the farm laws. So what explains the difference between the two? This brings us to the remaining four aspects.


2. Pandemic

One major reason is that the protests against the CAA – be they in Shaheen Bagh, Assam or the hundreds of sit-ins in the rest of India – was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic that hit India in early 2020. The first wave period also saw a government crackdown on several protest leaders – Ishrat Jahan and Khalid Saifi were arrested in the last week of February 2020, during the North East Delhi violence. Akhil Gogoi was rearrested two days after getting bail in March 2020.

There would surely have been protests against their arrests had the pandemic not been raging.

Khalid Saifi and Ishrat Jahan were arrested during the first wave of the pandemic.

(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown prevented any mass mobilisation against the CAA. In Assam, it is also said that the state government's "effective handling" of the pandemic helped BJP win back some support.

On the other hand, the second wave didn't see a full-fledged national lockdown like the first wave. A small section of protesters remained at the Singhu and Tikri borders during that period. Therefore, the numbers reduced but the protests didn't come to an end.


3. Farm Laws Came at a Much Higher Political Cost

One major reason is that the possible political cost of the farmers' protest may have been higher than the anti-CAA protests. Outside of Assam, the anti-CAA protests were almost entirely being driven by Muslims. Muslim localities were the epicentres of the protest and there were very few sit-ins outside these areas.

Therefore, the BJP didn't have any real danger of losing votes, since a vast majority of Muslims don't vote for the party anyway.

This doesn't mean that the movement itself was any less strong than the farmers' protest. It's just that the political cost for the BJP wasn't as high.

The only place where the BJP stood to lose some support was Assam. But through a series of steps the BJP contained the damage in the state – first, a police crackdown, then absence of mobilisation during the pandemic, and finally by reaching out to sections within ethnic Assamese voters to prevent a larger consolidation.

A good example of co-option of anti-CAA protesters is Arunjyoti Moran, a figure in the anti-CAA protests and leader of the All Moran Students' Union. Despite being firmly against the CAA, Moran joined the BJP ahead of the Assam elections.

The BJP similarly wooed smaller ethnic groups in Assam through the formation of councils, handing of sops, and appointment of key leaders in government positions.

As a result, the CAA didn't become a factor for any major anti-BJP consolidation in Assam. Even the strongly anti-CAA votes got split between the Congress and AJP-Raijor Dal alliance.

Also, going back on the CAA openly would mean losing a sizeable chunk of Hindu migrant voters in parts of West Bengal and Assam's Barak Valley.

These voters had strongly backed the BJP in the 2021 elections in these two states and the CAA was an important factor behind it.

In comparison to the CAA, the political cost of the farm laws would have been high.

The Opposition parties were also far more effective in leveraging the farm laws against the BJP compared to the CAA. Jayant Chaudhary in West UP, Deepender Hooda in Haryana, and all the main parties played a key role in leveraging the farmers' protests against the BJP.

Rakesh Tikait and Jayant Chaudhary in west Uttar Pradesh and Deepender Hooda in Haryana are trying to capitalise on the farmers’ anger against the BJP.
(Photo: Kamran Akhter/The Quint)

The BJP was at risk of becoming politically extinct in the Punjab. But had it been only Punjab, the BJP may still have tried to brazen it out, especially as Sikh voters never quite warmed up to Modi.

But it placed the BJP in danger in Haryana and West UP as well. Losses in civic polls and bypolls in Haryana made it quite clear that the Jat community was determined to vote against the BJP at least at the state and local level. While Jats in Haryana were still anti-BJP at the state level (not national level), in West UP it was even more dangerous as it would have meant losing one of the party's strongest vote banks in recent times.


The killing of farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri and the alleged involvement of Union Minister Ajay Teni Misra's son placed the farmers' movement at the centre of UP politics and there was a possibility that its impact could have gone beyond West UP.

4. Farm Laws Not a Core Ideological Issue for BJP, Unlike CAA

The settling of Hindu refugees in India was always a core issue for the BJP and Sangh Parivar. The CAA added other non-Muslim communities to it but the catchphrase for core Hindutva supporters was always 'Hindu refugees'. For many, it represented setting right the wrongs of partition.

Therefore, the CAA held a great deal of ideological importance for Hindutva supporters and influencers.

The farm laws, on the other hand, weren't an ideologically important issue in the Hindutva world view.

There were attempts, especially after the Red Fort violence on 26 January, to turn the narrative to a "battle against Khalistanis" but the rising number of protesters from West UP and Haryana prevented any major anti-Sikh mobilisation by the right wing.

Openly taking a U-turn on the CAA, on the other hand, will be very difficult for the BJP as it will mean going back on the promise of settling Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.


5. Divisions Within BJP

The BJP spoke in one voice against the CAA protests. There was no ambiguity in the party's response. The hostility towards the protests was clear in the comments by leaders like Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma towards the Shaheen Bagh protesters or by Union Home Minister Amit Shah's comment of the EVM button sending a "current through Shaheen Bagh".

Regarding the farm laws, the BJP spoke in multiple voices – Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar called for a "tit-for-tat" response against protesters, BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya labelled farmers as "Khalistanis", but, on the other hand, Pilibhit MP Varun Gandhi called protesting farmers "our flesh and blood" while Punjab leaders like Anil Joshi and Malwinder Kang quit the BJP in protest against the farm laws.

Even in Assam, though Sarbananda Sonowal was vague regarding the implementation of CAA, he held the home portfolio and completely backed the crackdown on the protesters.. Gandhi is still not letting the BJP government get away as a day after Modi's announcement, he wrote a letter to the PM demanding a guarantee on Minimum Support Prices.

File image of BJP leader Varun Gandhi.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Varun Gandhi)

On the one hand, the BJP presented the protests as the handiwork of "anti-national forces" and "middlemen", on the other hand the Union government held talks with leaders of the same protest.

Even after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, the Modi government and the Yogi Adityanath government in UP weren't on the same page, which helped the farm unions, especially Rakesh Tikait, to use the issue to corner the BJP.

Ironically, the BJP initially hoped that Tikait is a "less hostile" element within the farm unions and could be used to win over a section of farmers. In the end, the reverse happened as Tikait ended up using the divisions within the BJP between the central leadership and UP CM Yogi Adityanath.

All in all, the lack of coherence within the BJP and a higher political cost compelled a complete and publicised U-turn on the farm laws compared to the partial U-turn on the CAA.

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