The decision to repeal the three contentious farm laws is a very un-Modi like act. It suggests that perhaps there is finally a realisation that any further delay would cause political damage. Importantly, this is only the second time in seven years that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken back a measure introduced with much fanfare and publicised with great exuberance.
The timings of the two climbdowns are significant. The first decision was taken when a comfortable government at the Centre was in the making. The second was taken on Friday, when Modi faces a multi-fold challenge, ranging from questions over the management of COVID-19 to the political crisis ahead of the state assembly polls next year.
2015 vs Today
In 2015, Modi withdrew the Land Acquisition Act after promulgating an Ordinance that met with tremendous opposition, including from then-President Pranab Mukherjee, and even from sections within the Sangh Parivar.
While earlier, the decision to not pursue the land acquisition law came within a couple of months, on this occasion, the Prime Minister allowed the situation to drag on till it became counter-productive.
Furthermore, unlike in the past, the RSS leadership this time – importantly, not the entire rank and file, but merely the top brass – backed Modi on the disputable laws, revealing the extent to which they have been co-opted by the government.
Additionally, while the decision in 2015 was taken before suffering political setbacks, this time it was taken close – and as if in response – on the heels of electoral setbacks in the recent by-elections.
This “dramatic development” on the day of Gurpurab, which Modi played up evocatively, draws attention to three extremely significant pointers.
One, that Modi has a vulnerable underside to his persona where he balances his authoritarian streak with pragmatic necessity.
The latter dimension couldn’t assert itself due to the overblown hubris of the former. In fact, the authoritarian streak became the dominant facet after the landslide victory in 2019.
Double Trouble for Modi Now
Success with ideology-driven decisions such as Article 370, triple talaq and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the accompanying surround-sound created by a captivated publicity machinery and social media warriors, coupled with the confusion it caused in opposition ranks, kindled a feeling within the regime that the rulers could change every single brick in the country, figuratively speaking.
For months, it was evident that insistence on the three laws, which had become politically symbolic and were not just a piece of reformist legislation, was not bringing dividends. Yet, the overbearing streak in Modi disallowed the pragmatic within to articulate its thoughts. The question is, is it too late?
Scepticism about whether this decision will enable the BJP to roll back losses and help it woo alienated communities again stems from two responses. The first is the elation of farmers and other adversaries who see in this decision a bigger opening. For them, Modi’s announcement underlines the fact that even a government with more than 300 MPs eventually bowed down to protests – protests that despite some violent interludes largely followed the Gandhain template of non-violence and secularism. The decision to repeal the laws that had become representative of the regime’s ego has the potential to encourage other sections of society to struggle on issues that frustrate them.
The second reaction is the anger of pro-agri-reforms groups, who now see in Modi another weak-kneed and compromising political leader whose decisions are taken with elections in mind.
Ironically, the appeasement slur has swerved back like a boomerang. This section also includes those who bought into the BJP’s vituperative propaganda that the farmers’ stir was led by Khalistanis and other anti-nationals in the garb of peasants.
Will they ask now if conspiratorial narratives, such as those involving so-called ‘toolkits’, were unadulterated disinformation spread with the objective of misleading them?
With less than three months left before elections are held in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Uttarakhand – states most impacted by the agitation – do Modi and his party have enough time to get hostile farmers and now-angered supporters back on his side?
Modi Doesn't Understand Farm Issues
The second pointer to Modi's decision on withdrawing the farm laws is that he is barely tactful on farm issues. In contrast to this, he is extremely competent in making extreme, unachievable promises that move people, for instance, the promise of doubling farmers’ income by 2022, now weeks away.
But time has a way of catching up. Like Modi’s earlier promise of crediting Rs 15 lakh to every person’s account if he comes to power, this promise, too, has shown Modi as a leader who makes unachievable claims.
As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had successfully managed to put a lid on farm-related issues in the state because the ground reality was different. But in seven years as Prime Minister, he is yet to come to terms with the emotional quotient of these matters in the rest of India, especially in the heartland. This is paradoxical for a leader who spent several years handling party affairs in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. It shows that while Modi is extremely adept in realpolitik, on economic issues, his limitations gets bared, as had happened during demonetisation.
The failure to grasp agriculture-related realities is reflective of policymaking riddled with pre-conceived ideas and which doesn’t consult stakeholders, as has been the case with the farm laws, the consultations for which remained confined to convenient echo chambers.
The rollback is all the more surprising because despite the success of farm leaders at maintaining the momentum of the struggle, the leaders themselves were no great political strategists and not even very cohesive at times.
The 'Winners' Will Want More
Therein lies both an opening and a danger for Modi. The opening is that an unsure leadership may provide the Prime Minister with a way to make a political comeback. But the danger is that this movement is now no longer about leaders but about the sentiments of individual farmers.
In contrast to the lack of the organisational network of the protesters, the BJP and its government had multiple agencies and redoubtable party machinery at their command. This underscores, as was shown in the course of the national movement, that even the most repressive regimes can get worsted by unorganised masses, purely on the basis of popular sentiment.
The third pointer from the decision to repeal the laws is that the Modi government has not done service to itself by co-opting the RSS leadership and ensuring that it no longer works as the regime’s moral compass, one that acts as a check-and-balance mechanism and sends warning signals when decisions start backfiring.
The RSS leadership has often spoken about the Sangh’s eventual goal of becoming the ‘samaj’, or society. This can never happen if it remains merely an appendage of the ‘sarkar’, so to say.
It is easy to see this victory as that of the Sikh farmers of Punjab given their vilification as ‘separatists’ over the past year. But this is more a triumph for the western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana farmers, whose drift away from the BJP’s vote base was the real worry for the party.
In 2014, Modi’s victory was largely due to slogans that struck an instant chord with people and the promise of ushering in “Achhe Din” (good days).
It is too early to say if it is actually the beginning of “Bure Din” (bad days) for the BJP. The hearts of the farmers and those who backed their demands will certainly ask for much more.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)