Modi Repealing Farm Laws Is Huge! How Will It Impact Polls & National Politics?
The repeal of farm laws is an opportunity for Modi, the Opposition as well as aspirants within the BJP.
The Narendra Modi government's decision to scrap the three farm laws that had sparked protests from farmers, is likely to be a game-changer in India's politics. What isn't clear is whose game is going change for the better and whose for worse.
While it's difficult to make definite predictions, this is what could happen in the short term and in the long term.
WHAT MAY HAPPEN IN THE SHORT TERM?
1. How Will the Law be Repealed? The first step for the government would be to initiate the process of repeal. Article 245 of the Indian Constitution vests the right to pass or repeal laws with the Parliament. Since the three laws were passed by Parliament, they would have to be repealed by Parliament.
The repeal is now likely to happen in the winter session of Parliament that begins on 29 November.
Naturally when it comes up in Parliament, there are likely to be fireworks from the government and Opposition.
2. What Next for the Farmers' Protest?
The farm unions are likely to continue with their stir and demand a constitutional guarantee on Minimum Support Prices, repeal of the electricity law and action against those behind the Lakhimpur Kheri killings. However, the unions may scale down on the mass protest they had planned in 26 November, for which farmers were being mobilised across different states.
Farm Unions are likely to continue demanding a constitutional guarantee on Minimum Support Prices
While the demand for an MSP guarantee will continue, it is unlikely that the protest would continue with the same intensity as before. The farmers have sustained the protest for over a year now, several hundreds have died. The government's announcement on the repeal of the laws may give the unions a chance to scale down the agitation.
3. What Will be the Impact on Upcoming State Polls?
At least three of the poll bound states will face a direct impact of the repeal as the protests were more intense there.
Punjab: The repeal of the laws may not change political equations in Punjab, at least for the BJP.
It is unlikely to lead to any revival in the party's fortunes in the state. It's prospects in the elections would largely be dependent on the candidate selection in the few pockets where it does have some presence.
The only benefit for the BJP in Punjab is that the repeal may pave the way for an alliance with Captain Amarinder Singh's new party.
However, the repeal of the laws may have reduced the BJP's waiting period before it stops being treated as a political pariah in the state. That is provided it doesn't reintroduce the farm laws in another form or takes any other step to alienate Punjab's electorate.
Uttar Pradesh: Like Punjab, the repeal may not lead to a huge revival of BJP's fortunes in West UP. But unlike Punjab farmers, the Jat voters of West UP aren't traditionally anti-BJP. As the resentment was due to one cause, removal of that cause (farm laws) could contain damage for the BJP.
The repeal also may save BJP from the farm unions' plans of campaigning against the party across the state.
Uttarakhand: The Udham Singh Nagar district in Uttarakhand was an important hub of the protests against the farm laws. It is home to a large number of Sikh farmers. The BJP is likely to face damage in the district, which accounts for 8 seats in the 70 member Assembly.
A few seats here or there could make a difference in what is predicted to be a tight battle between the BJP and the Congress.
In the short term, what is highly likely is an effort by the BJP to divert attention to issues that are more politically beneficial for it - Hindutva and national security.
This could happen closer to elections.
LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES
In the long term, this U-Turn by Modi has added an element of uncertainty in Indian politics. The biggest development is that it has destroyed the aura of Modi being an invincible, iron-willed leader who can't be made to compromise.
The weakening of this image will have long term consequences for both BJP supporters and opponents. More on that a little later.
First a brief flashback.
Now, Modi is not the first PM to buckle before an agitation and he certainly won't be the last.
Past PMs Who Compromised With Protests and Those Who Didn't
Despite a brute majority, Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s compromised with a variety of protests - from the Assam agitation, the protests against the Shah Bano verdict, the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the 1988 Boat Club by Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Mahendra Singh Tikait to name a few.
Indira Gandhi, on the other hand, was said to have been least inclined to compromise with any form of collective bargaining.
The UPA government did not compromise on the OBC reservation issue but buckled during the Lokpal protests.
Modi himself has had a mixed track record as PM. Early into his first term, he gave in to the Opposition's protests and withdrew the land acquisition ordinance. In 2018, it also conceded to protests against the Supreme Court judgment on the SC/STs Prevention of Atrocities Act and passed a law overturning the verdict.
But his government hasn't compromised on the Citizenship Amendment Act except for small concessions for certain Northeastern states.
Now, irrespective of whether one supports or opposes any of these compromises, one thing is clear - all such decisions have political consequences.
Rajiv Gandhi's period is instructive in this context. He came to power with an even bigger majority than Modi and in an election marked by strong polarisation against a religious minority, Sikhs.
Reduced to paltry numbers in Parliament, the political Opposition of the time took to street protests or joined ongoing agitations to take on the Rajiv Gandhi government, not very different from the current scenario. Whenever political opposition and mass movements come together, it has the potential of altering the entire political landscape.
This is what the Modi government is trying to prevent by compromising on the farm laws.
Opportunity for Modi, Opposition and Aspirants Within BJP
It had become evident during Modi's first term itself that his Achilles' Heel is the economy. It began with the withdrawal of the land acquisition ordinance. Then there was a brief period around 2017-2018 when economic woes were weighing heavily in the public's mind. This was the period when people were feeling the pinch due to the effects of demonetisation and GST.
This period saw the BJP facing a scare in Gujarat, falling short of a majority in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and being defeated in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana. December 2018 was also when Modi's lead over his main challenger - Rahul Gandhi - was the narrowest.
The farmers' protest had the potential of causing lasting damage on the BJP, especially if it had led to the coalescing of people suffering from other economic woes economic - price rise, job losses, falling incomes, loss of livelihood etc. Nothing short of a repeal could have prevented this, hence the government's decision.
So in that sense the Modi government has taken a tough call to contain any damage. If all goes according to the government's plan, the worst political threat may be over and the BJP may be able to dominate elections using its superior resources and its pet themes of Hindutva and national security.
But this doesn't mean that the economic woes have themselves gone or that the damage has been contained. Who knows it may embolden the Opposition now that they have tasted blood with the repeal.
There is immense scope for any mass movement or any Opposition party that wants to take on the government on economic issues like price rise or job losses. The instrumental role of unemployed youth in the RJD's decent performance in the 2020 Bihar polls or of apple-growers in the BJP's washout in the recent Himachal Pradesh bypolls are cases in point.
The space is there. But the question is whether any leader or organisation from the Opposition or civil society have the capacity to tap into these economic grievances.
Modi's U-Turn on the farm laws has also opened up space for challengers within the BJP. Despite the spin that Modi backtracked due to national security, there are a sizable number of BJP supporters, even functionaries who are disappointed.
They had been defending the laws and delegitimising those opposing the laws with such fervour that they now feel a sense of betrayal at the government's decision.
The entire Brand Modi has been created around the perception of him being an iron-willed leader who doesn't give in even if it means sacrificing political interests. This perception has taken a beating. In the worldview of some core supporters, Modi is being seen as someone who succumbed to short term political gains and buckled under pressure from vested interests.
Many of BJP's core supporters are also those who feel good about the the humiliation of opponents. To see their "infallible" leader being forced to retreat, won't be easy for them.
Now, this could have gone the other way as well.
Had Modi not compromised on the farm laws, a space was being created for those advocating a "sensitive" line towards farmers - people such as Pilibhit MP Varun Gandhi and Meghalaya Governor Satyapal Malik. There was also a call for Rajnath Singh to be given the job of mediating with farmers. Basically, the importance of a softer, more accommodative approach was being stressed.
But with Modi himself compromising, it opens space for a leader within BJP with a more uncompromising line on various issues and greater capacity to "restore the pride" of supporters or humiliate "enemies".
It's possible that no leader is able to fill this vacuum. It's also possible that Modi himself addresses it by taking some step that plays to the gallery of core BJP supporters. Expect Modi or someone else from the BJP to try this in the next couple of months.
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.