#FarmersProtest: Why India Needs Modi to Be Pragmatic, Not Adamant

In his speech in the RS, PM Modi remained combative on the matter of the farm laws.

6 min read
Protesting farmers bang pots, utensils during Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ show.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reply at the conclusion of the debate on the Motion of Thanks on the President's address to the two Houses of Parliament was keenly awaited, essentially for what he might say on the ongoing farmers' stir.

Would he be more placatory than what he said at the all-party meeting on 30 January that the government was "just a phone call away," while renewing the offer of continuing the dialogue process?

The question arose because the protesters regrouped in the interim and bounced back after the setback stemming from the events on Republic Day.

Eventually, Modi did not go any further and instead remained combative on the matter. He contended that the three contentious farm laws would improve the economic situation of farmers besides contributing to national growth.

Vintage Modi on Display

To buttress his point, Modi turned polemical and cited several Opposition leaders, most importantly two of his predecessors – Dr Manmohan Singh and HD Deve Gowda. He also delved into history by referring to a speech of Charan Singh, also a former premier, but more importantly, an iconic peasants' leader from the past.

Quotations of others is like history, anyone's slave, can always be cited in a way that serves one's own narrative, especially when the other gets no opportunity to recall the context.

Modi’s argument was simple: His government was merely carrying on with the ‘unfinished task’ of previous governments, each of which felt change was essential for improving the lot of the farmers, especially smaller peasants.

Past governments, Modi suggested, did not pursue the initiatives due to political compulsions.

Modi, however, did not shut the door on a dialogue with farmers. He even said that the law would be corrected if deficiencies were detected and errors, if any, would be rectified. But the PM made it amply clear that the Opposition, during the debate on the presidential address, had contributed little by way of positive criticism or pointing to deficiencies in the laws.

This has been stated by his minister for agriculture, too, who reiterated that farmers' representatives are unwilling to discuss what is bothersome to them in the law "clause by clause". Modi said in his speech that the opponents of the laws were unreasonable and did not wish to enter into 'rational' discussion.

"There has been a lot of discussion on the farmers agitation," the prime minister said referring to interventions by Opposition leaders during the debate, but little on why it is happening. “There are challenges. But we have to decide whether we want to be part of the problem or the medium of solution," Modi added.

Modi Decided to Pull No Punches Back

Modi was combative on issues besides the farm laws too. From the beginning it was amply evident what was to come.

Finally, when he began talking about the contentious laws, it was vintage Modi on display, the one most comfortable while making an all-out attack on those critical of any measure of the government.

In the early part of his speech, the prime minister referred to the initial days of the pandemic when the lockdown was imposed. He said it was a time when the nation was facing an "unknown enemy" and few were in the know of its capacities , "no one had any clues."

Modi recalled the time when people were asked to light lamps on their doorsteps. He mentioned that the social media popularised the image of an old homeless woman living in a makeshift hut on a footpath, placing a lamp outside an imaginary door in her abode.

Her act, for Modi, was "Bharat ke shubh ki kaamna" (an act of wishing well for India) when the country was witnessing a "samuhik shakti ka jagran" (articulation of collective power or resolve).

"But, they made fun of even that," Modi accused. He obviously referred to the criticism flung at him for losing an opportunity to raise people's scientific temper and instead engaging them in various collective actions, from beating plates, ringing bells to lighting earthen lamps. Almost a year later, Modi defended these calls.

Not All Protests Can Be Termed Anti-National

This regime strictly dislikes agitations and demonises those who disagree with its decisions, policies, and programmes. New words are constantly added to the already malicious vocabulary of criticism.

To this dictionary, Modi added another word – andolanjeevi – meaning those who live from one andolan (agitation) to another.

Modi mocked and said, this new jamaat (note use of an Urdu word and not a Hindi one) is present at the site of every agitation. "They are there everywhere — whether it is a lawyers' agitation, a students' strike, or a labour stir — sometimes behind the scenes, and on other occasions, at the forefront. They cannot live without an agitation," Modi ridiculed. He further said that this jamaat of andolanjeevis, are also parjeevis or parasites.

While this certainly provides opportunity for his ranks to break into derisive laughter, such criticism does not take into account the time when he, as a full-time political activist of the RSS, personally engaged in agitations. His role in protests began with Gujarat's Nav Nirman agitation in 1974, the anti-Emergency struggle between 1975-1979 and the anti-reservation stir in Gujarat in the early 1980s.

And, not to the forget the biggest of them all — the one that enabled Modi to reach here — the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.

Singing paeans to democracy is an essential element of most of his speeches. But this is contradictory to incessantly questioning people’s right to dissent. While certain protests can be of questionable character, not each of these can be termed anti-national.

‘Foreign Hand’ is Not Always Useful

Modi created a new full-form for FDI – Foreign Destructive Ideology. In his speech on 8 February at Dhekiajuli in northern Assam's Sonitpur district, Modi incredulously claimed that an international conspiracy had been hatched to "defame" Indian tea. He was certainly angered by criticism levelled at the Centre's handling of the farmers' stir by several international celebrities.

Paradoxically, the external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, had told columnist and international affairs expert C Raja Mohan at a public interaction in November 2019 his (or the country's) "reputation is not decided by a newspaper in New York." This was in response to a question regarding escalating criticism of Indian policies, be it CAA or Kashmir, outside the country.

But the hurt this time showed and not just through Modi's exasperation. The normally reticent MEA, which does not respond to criticism of all and sundry, too, put out a statement that revealed Indian incense to the rising tide of international criticism.

Blaming international forces for the government’s intensifying woes — that Modi has resorted to in the past, too — has a long tradition in the country. It is indicative of leaders losing their grip.

Indira Gandhi in the 1970s and 1980s raised the spectre of the ubiquitous "foreign hand" when the going got rough. At a public rally in Calcutta (as the city was then known) in March 1976 she said criticism of foreign elements would not succeed for "the more they try to suppress us or oppose us, the more strong and united we will be."

Later, after her return in 1980, with the situation in Punjab, Assam, and some other states deteriorating, she raised the bogey constantly. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, too, often mentioned the 'invisible' foreign hand to defame his regime and weaken India, especially after Swedish Radio broke the story regarding alleged kickbacks in the Bofors deal.

Even the normally genial Manmohan Singh alleged that some foreign NGOs, especially from the US, had been backing the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, which India was building with Russian assistance.

Modi Will Need ‘an Infallible Strategy’ to Resolve the Farmer Crisis

While these allegations enabled Indira Gandhi or the others that followed to close her ranks, they did little in warding off the threat from rising disenchantment and genuine anti-India groups in Punjab.

Modi has a political challenge on hand and it will take an infallible strategy to get the farmers' agitation to either be withdrawn, or for it to fritter away. The crisis at hand requires deft political handling of the situation and calls for the pragmatist within him to come to the fore, not for the adamant leader he showcased during his reply in the Rajya Sabha.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached 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.)

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