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The SIT, in a closure report filed on February 8, 2012, had given a clean chit to Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat and 63 others in the riots, stating that there was no “prosecutable evidence” against them. | File Photo

Modi’s repeal of farm laws may not cut ice in poll-bound UP, Punjab

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It is, perhaps, no coincidence that in his nearly eight-year stint as prime minister, the otherwise fiercely unyielding Narendra Modi’s second major legislative volte face has come on an issue that directly impacts India’s farmers.

In August 2015, barely over a year into his first term as prime minister, Modi had made his first major policy U-turn when he withdrew the ordinance that sought to dilute the land acquisition law passed during the erstwhile UPA government’s tenure. On Friday, Modi made a far bigger abjuration by declaring that his government was set to repeal the three contentious farm laws that had, unlike the limited farmers’ stir against the land acquisition ordinance of 2015, triggered the longest running peasants’ protest India had witnessed since Independence.

The resultant political cacophony over Modi’s sudden announcement has, predictably, been about the electoral motivations behind the move. After all, states worst impacted by the farmers’ protest that is now into its second year – the gherao of Delhi by farmers too would complete a year on November 26 – include Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, both due for crucial assembly elections in less than three months. Modi’s uncharacteristic backpedalling is recognition of the electoral might of farmers, an otherwise amorphous vote bank, and their capacity to inflict political damage on a party that they feel has betrayed their cause.

Also read: Why the repeal of farm laws should be celebrated as democratic victory

Modi’s emotional meltdown over the “failure of not being able to explain the benefits” of the purported reforms to the farmers and his invocation of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism whose birth anniversary Sikhs and Punjab are celebrating today, while announcing withdrawal of the three farm laws has electoral machinations written all over it. As does the Prime Minister’s assurance of constituting a committee soon to draw a blueprint of future reforms in the agriculture sector that would, among other things, also look at the prickly issue of streamlining the minimum support price (MSP) mechanism for farmers.

Opposition parties, the Congress in particular, have sought to shred Modi’s olive branch to the agitating farmers by insisting that the impending repeal of the three laws in the forthcoming winter session of Parliament are borne not out of love or concern for India’s over 60-crore-strong farming community, but the fear of electoral backlash in poll-bound states. Former finance minister and Congress veteran P Chidambaram pithily described Modi’s perceived motivations as: “What cannot be achieved by democratic protests can be achieved by the fear of impending elections.”

It would be naive of Opposition parties to assume that Modi, with his insatiable appetite for electoral triumphs and five assembly polls due in February-March 2022, would simply bask in the accolades coming his way from familiar quarters of the BJP ecosystem for his ‘empathetic’ retraction on laws that he had clearly made a prestige issue despite vociferous protests. It would also be churlishly presumptive of the Opposition to think that the impending repeal of the laws – their implementation had, anyway, been stayed by the Supreme Court last year – would be the only means Modi will employ from his formidable arsenal of electoral spin-doctoring to regain ground that the BJP may have lost among the farming constituency.

Congress’ media cell chief Randeep Surjewala is, perhaps, right in asking why Modi has decided to wait for Parliament to convene to repeal the laws and not done so with immediate effect through an ordinance when his government, only days back, hurriedly passed another controversial ordinance to extend the tenures of chiefs of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). BJP insiders say the forthcoming winter session of Parliament that begins on November 29 and the budget session, which would likely coincide with assembly polls in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, could see the Modi government go all out to win back the trust of the farmers.

Is it too late for BJP to correct course in UP?

Predictably, the Opposition, which had hoped of setbacks to the BJP in the largely agrarian states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, has been forced to recalibrate its strategy. “This (Modi’s announcement) has caught us off-guard but it is also a clear admission that Modi feared electoral reverses for the BJP due to anger among the farmers, particularly in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. For us, it is now a matter of ensuring that farmers don’t get swayed away by populist announcements that the Modi government will likely make before the model code of conduct kicks in sometime in January. There is no room for being complacent. We have to make sure that farmers do not forget the injustices they have faced because of the BJP,” a senior Samajwadi Party (SP) leader told The Federal.

In poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, contrary to popular perception, the ruling BJP under Yogi Adityanath has been consistently losing ground to the coalition between the SP and farmer leader Jayant Chaudhary’s western Uttar Pradesh-based Rashtriya Lok Dal. The Congress, a fringe electoral player in the state for nearly three decades now, has also been hoping for a resurgence this election season, with party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra leading its campaign. A recent survey by C-Voter had suggested that though the BJP is set to return to power in the state, the massive majority it had bagged with over 320 seats in the 403-member Uttar Pradesh assembly could be reduced by over 100 seats. Among the areas where the BJP stands to lose the most are districts falling in the sugarcane belt of western Uttar Pradesh. SP and Congress leaders also insist that the BJP stands to lose a major chunk of votes in central Uttar Pradesh too, where response to the peasant protests was less intense compared to the western Uttar Pradesh districts. “Up until last month, the farmers in central Uttar Pradesh were not that deeply involved with the agitation, but the murder of our brothers in Lakhimpur Kheri (four farmers were mowed down allegedly by the cavalcade of Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son in October) and the BJP’s attempt at shielding the culprits has flared up emotions here too. The BJP did not even spare its own MP (Varun Gandhi) when he raised the issue…,” says a senior leader from the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella organisation of farmer unions that has been spearheading the protests against the farm laws.

Also read: Won’t call off protests; let’s talk MSP next: Farmers’ unions to Centre

In the western Uttar Pradesh districts that the BJP had swept in the 2017 assembly polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Chaudhary’s bhaichara sammelans and Kisan mahapanchayats have been drawing massive crowds while BJP lawmakers have been finding it difficult to even step into their constituencies without getting thrashed by angry farmers. Chaudhary, grandson of one of India’s tallest farmer leaders and former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, tells The Federal that though the BJP had swept western Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the region’s farming community had already started drifting away from the party at the time.

“Both Chaudhary sahib (Jayant Chaudhary’s father, the late Ajit Singh) and I lost the 2019 elections narrowly. The BJP had gained in this area because of its politics of communal polarisation, by pitting the Jats against the Muslims. Today, western Uttar Pradesh’s farmer has understood that he was taken for a ride. The RLD has spent the past year organising bhaichara sammelans to revive Jat-Muslim bonhomie and the response has been tremendous. The black farm laws further intensified the anger against the BJP among the farming community and the lakhs turning up at our Kisan mahapanchayats are evidence of that churn,” Chaudhary says.

The former MP from Mathura adds, “By the time we go into polls, Modi’s deadline of doubling farmers income by February 2022 will also lapse but our farmers know that their incomes have actually halved since 2019. So, this announcement by Modi or other promises he may make to the farmers will not turn the tide for the BJP, we are confident of getting our message across to the farmers – if they want to prosper, they have to defeat the BJP.”

Greener pastures in Punjab amid infighting in Cong

BJP leaders being prevented from visiting their constituencies isn’t unique to western Uttar Pradesh districts. Similar reprisals have been witnessed in Punjab too where the BJP already had a limited presence and was forced to ride piggyback on its now divorced ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). However, the BJP’s challenges in Punjab are not exactly the same as those in Uttar Pradesh and the ruling Congress too has been hurtling from one internal crisis to another on a daily basis in wake of the unrelenting clash between chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.

Channi’s predecessor, Amarinder Singh, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Congress in September, has already made public his decision to float his own party before the Punjab polls and explore a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. Singh, who had in recent weeks been in talks with Union home minister Amit Shah to find ways of ending the farmers’ stir, was quick to shower praise on Modi for withdrawing the farm laws; insisting, once again, that he hoped to work closely with the BJP in the near future.

The BJP, say sources, hasn’t yet taken a final call on allying with Singh’s outfit but that could change now. “In Punjab, we are largely confined to urban pockets and, in the past, we relied on the Akalis to come to power. Now that the alliance with the Akali Dal is over, we need a new partner and talks with Amarinder Singh are only natural. Amarinder still has a clout in the state and the farmer unions are not antagonistic towards him. With the farm laws withdrawn, we can now explore some arrangement with Singh and hope to at least retain our base in urban areas where farming is not the only economic activity for the electorate,” a Punjab BJP leader tells The Federal.

The Congress, however, believes it can still hold on to Punjab. Despite being constantly undermined by Sidhu, Channi has been trying hard to woo the farmers. Earlier this week, Channi had met a delegation of farmers to discuss their demands. After the meeting that both sides described as “highly positive and productive”, Channi had said that he had accepted all demands of the farmers except one – that of a blanket waiver of farm loans. A farmer leader present at the meeting with Channi told The Federal, on condition of anonymity, that “farmers were willing to give Channi a chance because he has been very supportive” even though they had “many grievances with the Congress government because of unfulfilled promises and the way Amarinder Singh ran the government.” The farmer leader added, “there is no question of supporting the BJP or anyone who stands with the BJP… with what face will we go back to our people and our villages if we lend support to the BJP after all that we have had to suffer over the past year.”

Also read: Farm laws repeal: Modi at his nimble best with polls round the corner

Ashwani Kumar, former Union minister and a senior Congress leader from Punjab, tells The Federal, “no farmer in Punjab will be influenced by the BJP’s repeal of the farm laws because everyone knows it is being done only for elections… the farmer protests were organic in nature and, unlike the 2015 agitation against the BJP’s land acquisition ordinance, the current protest was not driven by politicians, but by ordinary people. Of the over 700 farmers who have died during the protest in the past year, a majority were from Punjab; the BJP dubbed the protesters as ‘khalistani terrorists’ and Modi too called them andolanjeevi. The Punjab farmer will not forget all this so soon because the feeling of hurt and betrayal is very deep.”

The withdrawal of the farm laws may signal an electoral course-correction for the BJP ahead of important assembly polls. However, the belated move – coming as it does after a whole year of the entire saffron ecosystem investing heavily in vilifying the farmers and BJP’s chief ministers like Haryana’s ML Khattar publicly sanctioning police brutalities against agitating farmers – will not singularly win the BJP support among the farmers. The coming weeks and months may see Modi unleashing a blitzkrieg of populism aimed at the farmers. If it pays off, it would strengthen the notion that India’s electoral democracy is purely transactional. Yet, it would also show that even demagogues are forced to bend when an otherwise inchoate mass of voters, fragmented by their castes, religion or economic disparity, unite against a common wrong.

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