Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose the occasion of Gurpurab to announce his government's decision to take back the three farm laws that had sparked protests by farmers.
The significance of the timing as well as Modi's invocation of Guru Nanak was to show the decision not as a U-turn (which it is) but an act of magnanimity on the part of the prime minister.
The spin being given by those close to the government is that the PM put "national interest" over "party interest" as there were fears that "anti-India forces" could use to the farmers' agitation to create "instability" and "divisions".
The spin may not be true but it is important nonetheless that the keywords the government wants to put out are "national interest," "overture towards Sikhs," "magnanimity by PM," "the PM bent himself but didn't let the country bend," etc.
However, the decision has everything to do with party interest.
Though presented as an overture towards Punjab, the UP elections are said to be the main factor behind the government's decision.
Opinion polls had already been predicting massive losses for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West UP; and recent polls suggest that the BJP may be losing ground in East UP, Terai region, and Rohilkhand too.
The latest opinion poll by CVoter predicted a tally of 217 seats for BJP – indicating a loss of over 100 seats.
At least two BJP politicians from UP had already been openly speaking out against the farm laws – Pilibhit MP Varun Gandhi and Meghalaya Governor Satyapal Malik.
Both these leaders are known to engage with farm unions and hail from areas where the farmers' movement had been strong – Gandhi represents Pilibhit in the Terai region while Malik is from West UP.
However, what was the most potentially harmful aspect of the farmers' agitation for the BJP is that it was grabbing the narrative away from the party.
"The protest had already gained traction among a section of farmers in UP who weren't even directly affected by the farm laws. The protest had the potential of amplifying the dissatisfaction among those affected by economic woes in general," a BJP leader from UP told this author.
The last thing the BJP would have wanted is an election in which economic factors emerge as the dominant narrative, despite its best efforts to play the Hindutva card or invoke the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
Lakhimpur Kheri Incident – Turning Point
A major turning point was incident at Lakhimpur Kheri on 3 October, in which eight people died, four of whom were farmers and were allegedly run over by a vehicle belonging to the son of Union minister Ajay Misra Teni.
The Lakhimpur Kheri deaths were a political disaster for the BJP. One aspect was the alleged involvement of the son of Ajay Misra, who isn't just a central minister but one who works under Home Minister Amit Shah himself.
The second harmful aspect for the BJP is that the incident placed the farmers' protest right at the heart of the political battle in UP. It could no longer be dismissed as a purely West UP issue. Farmers angry at a law is one thing, a minister's son allegedly running over farmers is an entirely different issue and far more harmful.
The BJP also mishandled the issue as it became caught in the ongoing tussle between CM Yogi Adityanath and the BJP's central leadership.
Adityanath is said to have been keen on going after Ajay Misra Teni but Amit Shah continued to back Teni, as was evident in his presence at the leader's rally in UP.
The bigger problem for the BJP in the entire episode was a loss of moral capital. With a minister's son in the dock for allegedly running over farmers, nothing that the government would do or say could restore the moral high ground it was trying to occupy vis-à-vis the farmers.
Government Cuts Its Losses
It's important to remember that the farm laws aren't associated with BJP's core ideology like Article 370 or the Citizenship Amendment Act. Therefore, a climbdown on the farm laws won't come at a political cost.
There's also the reality that the farm laws were already in a limbo. The Supreme Court had kept them in abeyance for an undefined period. The government itself was open to keeping them on hold for 18 months.
In either case, implementation of the farm laws would have been unlikely till 2023 or so and it would have kept the farmers' issue alive till close to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. This would have been harmful for the BJP.
The BJP had already lost out a great deal due to the farm laws – its 23 years' alliance with the Akalis was over, the party had become a pariah in Punjab, and was facing increasing hostility among the Jats of Haryana and West UP.
To the entities supporting the farm laws, the BJP had already proven its commitment to their version of "reforms" and presented the Opposition as "anti-reform". And it was now a question of cutting their losses and getting out of a politically harmful situation.