RSS Worried About ‘Brand Modi’ as PM Bows to Farmers
Modi's strongman image has taken a hit as his own zealous supporters begin to see his vulnerability.
To a haughty politician who has assiduously acquired the image of a strong leader, nothing is more damaging than when that image develops cracks due to his own meek surrender before ‘people power’. The damage happens at two critical levels.
First, his adversaries suddenly begin to see that he is not quite what his propaganda projected him to be. They realise that he is vulnerable to capitulation if the right issues are raised in the right manner with the requisite amount of agitational pressure.
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Second, his strongman image suffers far greater damage when his own zealous supporters begin to see his vulnerability. For they are the ones who not only believed him to be an iron-willed leader, but also, because of that belief, became his ardent propagators. They backed him passionately even if they were not fully convinced about the rightness of some of his policies and decisions. But when the leader goes back on the very decisions they had been blindly supporting, disillusionment hits them with the force of betrayal. They, too, begin to see that their leader is not quite what they had imagined and trumpeted him to be.
This is what has happened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reputation now. It has been severely dented, both in the eyes of his opponents as well as his admirers, by his 19 November decision to repeal the three contentious farm laws. After all, he had put the full weight of his authority in getting the three controversial laws enacted, projecting them as his firm commitment to “big ticket” reforms in the agriculture sector. Bypassing Parliament, he first got them promulgated through the ordinance route, even though his own party, when it was in the opposition, used to fiercely criticise the Congress for its ‘Ordinance Raj’. The Bills were later passed in Parliament in a most questionable and undemocratic manner.
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When farmers’ organisations started their agitation demanding the withdrawal of the three laws — it turned out to be the longest, largest, and most spectacularly non-violent farmers’ protest in the world — he simply refused to meet their leaders. In fact, his government did everything to suppress the agitation. His army of fanatical supporters did everything to malign the agitation, even though many of them were not fully convinced either about the necessity and soundness of the three laws or about their leader’s utterly insensitive manner of dealing with the agitation.
When a few Cabinet colleagues demurred, Modi snubbed them saying, “There is no question of going back.”
A BJP MP from western Uttar Pradesh made bold to suggest to him that the government should reconsider its rigid stand since it had rendered him and his party highly unpopular among the people in his constituency. The Prime Minister sternly rebuked him: “Aapko agli baar party ki ticket chaahiye ya nahin?” (Do you not want the party’s ticket to fight the next election?)
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which provides the ideological mentorship and organisational power to the BJP, was most concerned about Modi’s unyielding approach to the farmers’ agitation. Its own affiliate in the agriculture sector, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, was opposed to the three laws, even though it did not – because it could not – express its opposition openly.
On a different note: another member of the Sangh Parivar, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which is India’s largest trade union, is staunchly opposed to Modi’s policy of blanket privatisation of public sector assets. But the RSS leadership has muted its voice of opposition.
RSS leaders knew very well that the struggles of the farmers’ as ‘annadatas’ (growers and providers of food) evoke a certain degree of sympathy in all sections of Indian society. To disregard this is to be both ignorant and contemptuous about Indian culture, as our westernised urban elite tends to be. After all, the slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri way back in 1965 continues to have an emotional pull on the Indian psyche even now.
The Modi vs Sikhs Battle Was Always a Tough One
RSS leaders were getting increasingly restive as the farmers’ agitation on the outskirts of the national capital continued for nearly a year despite extreme weather conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic. They knew that the government-sponsored narratives about the protesters being “Khalistanis”, or the protest having been financed by Canada, Pakistan and China, were not cutting much ice. More worrisome was the fact that reports of over 600 farmers dying at the protest site conveyed a message to the public that Modi was a heartless leader.
The Sangh was equally worried by the fact that Sikhs from Punjab and Haryana constituted a majority of the agitating farmers. It knew the likely consequences of the Sikh community’s growing anger against the Modi government, and that too in a sensitive border state adjoining Pakistan. Modi had clearly erred in believing that the agitation would ultimately peter out and Sikh farmers, out of sheer exhaustion and helplessness, would return to their villages empty-handed.
A prominent Sikh leader told me, “The ‘Modi vs. Sikhs’ battle was unequal right from the beginning because our community has a long history of fearless struggle and sacrifice against tyrants. Our population may be only 2.5 per cent of India, but the Sikh diaspora was successful in creating an intense anti-Modi atmosphere in western countries.”
When Reality Hit
Furthermore, the spread of the farmers’ agitation in western Uttar Pradesh had an impact quite contrary to the BJP’s electoral strategy of polarising the Hindu and Muslim communities in this region. This strategy had yielded rich benefits to the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections as well as in the 2017 Assembly election. However, this time around, the farmers’ movement succeeded in uniting not only various Hindu castes but also Hindus and Muslims. In fact, Jayant Chaudhary, the young president of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (inheritor of the legacy of his grandfather Chaudhary Charan Singh and father Ajit Singh), drew large crowds of Hindus and Muslims at his ‘Bhaichara’ rallies in various parts of western UP. The aim of these rallies has been to propagate the message of communal peace and harmony.
RSS and BJP supporters were facing yet another unpleasant reality in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The Lakhimpur Kheri incident on 3 October, in which five persons, including four Sikhs, were mowed to death by a speeding jeep allegedly driven by the son of a Minister in Modi’s government, triggered nationwide outrage. This made Modi even more unpopular in Punjab. In Uttar Pradesh, it meant that the farmers’ movement was beginning to hurt the BJP in other parts of the state as well.
Knowing all these ground realities, the Sangh leadership advised Modi to repeal the three farm laws.
His decision to withdraw these laws must have been prompted also by similar feedback received from the government’s own intelligence agencies, as well as opinion pollsters, about the BJP’s shrinking support base in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the upcoming Assembly election.
'Modi Was a Product of Mahaul in 2014'
Now that Modi has relented from his inflexible position on the farm laws, Sangh leaders have breathed a sigh of relief. They know a major confrontation has been averted. However, they, as well as Modi’s ‘bhakts’ (loyalists), are worried because of the damage his retreat has caused to his image as a resolute and unbendable leader. After all, this image was his greatest USP in the 2014 and 2019 elections. He was billed as a Prime Minister who could take “tough” decisions and stand firm against his opponents’ demands to undo those decisions.
An RSS old-timer said to me:
Modi’s image as a strong leader, when he entered national politics, was a product of ‘mahaul’ (atmosphere) and marketing. He was a lucky beneficiary of the pre-2014 atmosphere, in which many people viewed Dr Manmohan Singh as a ‘weak Prime Minister’. Modi adroitly used the media to market his leadership qualities, some real and others non-existent. Until the emergence of the Kisan movement, he faced no challenge to his image. That has changed now. From now onwards, politics in India will enter a new ‘mahaul’, one that will not be very favourable to him. And marketing alone will not be enough to prop up ‘Brand Modi’.”
And if the BJP performs poorly in the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh and other states, the Sangh Parivar and Modi ‘bhakts’ will surely have a lot more to worry about.
Arrogance, egotism and ubiquitous self-projection serve a leader well when the going is good. But when the going gets tough, they become his liabilities. Modi has blinked. The facade has cracked.
(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia. He has authored Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at email@example.com)
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