Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to repeal the three farm laws is undeniably the most important political news event of the year so far. It is also his biggest ‘defeat’ in the seven-and-a-half years since he assumed office. But the tone and tenor of the address to the nation suggested that hubris still prevents him from seeing the writing on the wall.
In his address he conveyed the message that his declaration was actually an instance of a crafty leader snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Modi did not once concede that he had made a mistake by enacting the laws amid the pandemic.
By projecting himself as a magnanimous leader, someone whose failure lay merely in his inability to convince a minuscule section of farmers in the ‘goodness’ of his decision, Modi possibly estranged farmers of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Uttarakhand a bit more. If this was intended to be a political quick fix with next year’s polls in mind, the tactic is unlikely to cut any ice.
To get the momentum back into the decelerating BJP bandwagon – as surveys by organisations known for being sympathetic to the party show – Modi will have to devise another trick. It is imagined that the BJP is likely to benefit from sub-categorisation of the OBC quota. The argument runs that the party will win over non-dominant (read non-Yadav) OBC sub-castes following sub-categorisation of reservations. These social groups have recently cosied up to the Samajwadi Party, expanding its social base beyond its traditional Yadav-plus-Muslim core.
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However, this presumption is akin to playing ‘blind’ in teen patti, or ‘flash’. Furthermore, with dwindling number of government or public sector jobs, the policy of reservations is getting more oriented towards educational institutions. As a result, there is little certainty sub-categorisation can act as a big game changer, as the Mandal Commission award did three decades ago.
For the moment, it is important to underscore that after asking for kshama, or apology, Modi dabbed a coat of benevolence on his persona. This has the potential to anger farmers and their supporters. Instead of accepting the decision to repeal the laws as ‘victory’, and getting on with life, they may well decide to press on for more. The demand to make MSP a legal right was voiced emphatically during the agitation and it can still become an issue on which farmers can be mobilised.
The farmers’ stir – they will complete one year on the road on November 26 if they do not return home immediately, as has been declared – is unprecedented since 2014 in its resoluteness. This has immense political implications because this regime has consistently frowned upon any form of dissent and all acts of protests have been branded as anti-national and subversive activity.
The protests were also depicted as conspiracy of Sikh separatist groups, who were accused of ‘collaborating’ with human rights activists. The government slapped the now universalised UAPA, the most misused law after TADA, on several farmer activists and its leaders. Young civil society activists like Disha Ravi too were not spared. Recently, NSA Ajit Doval stated that civil society was the ‘new frontier of war’.
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In the process the regime quietly forgot that even people like Modi were once youthful activists who carried proscribed literature during Emergency, besides escorting underground leaders to safe-houses. Modi’s decision to repeal the laws is thus merely an instance of taking a humbling beating, because as he stated, the laws were anyway inapplicable because of the Supreme Court stay order. Its success or failure will depend on its capacity to get the social engineering right, despite the significant drift away from the BJP in western UP and Haryana (although polls there are not due before 2024 – but then the state government does not command a massive majority and remains dependent on allies for survival).
For several weeks there were indications that a decision on repealing the laws could be taken. The first occasion when this became evident was when Amarinder Singh left the Congress and met Home Minister Amit Shah, and stated that a tie up with the BJP was possible, but subject to a ‘solution’ being found to the farmers’ issue. For the former Punjab chief minister it was important to get the laws repealed if he was to even approach his Sikh supporters during the campaign. However, in the event of forming an alliance with the BJP, Amarinder will be hamstrung by the persistent name calling and denigration of Sikh farmers in the course of the past year. The Lakhimpur Kheri incident perhaps added to urgency among BJP leaders to find a solution before the first anniversary of the stir.
Since 2014 Indians have not witnessed persistent mass movements that were not just non-violent in character but also secular, without allowing ‘pro minority’ issues to gain currency. On the other side, Modi and his team secured escapes when it appeared improbable, demonetisation being the prime example. Consequently, there is always the sense that the prime minister and his aides have the capacity to devise a masterstroke in every situation. This is also probable and he may yet be able to turn the tables on his adversaries once again. But for the moment, the evidence and history are on the other side.
A night before Modi’s announcement I was reading up about the Champaran and Bardoli Satyagraha, in 1918 and 1928, respectively. Both were finest moments of peasants’ victories. Besides paving the way for its spearheads, Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel (incidentally the latter got his ‘Sardar’ title from a unknown farmer in the course of the stir in Bardoli taluka of Surat district) to become dominant personalities in the freedom struggle, the two episodes also acted as catalytic agitations for the freedom struggle. The reason why the latter succeeded – the first was mounted when the national movement was yet to acquire a mass character and thereby not relevant to this argument – was because it was kept a ‘farmers only’ movement with issues restricted to the agricultural sector – arbitrarily enhanced land revenue – and more consequential matters like swaraj were kept out.
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It is true that the government was also rocked by the anti-CAA agitation from late 2019 onwards till the beginning of the pandemic. But the agitation acquired, rightly or wrongly, the character of being fought for a ‘minority issue’, and was not considered politically ‘appropriate’ in the changed India. Over the past year, efforts to widen the canvas of the farmers’ agitation were successfully resisted and the results are there to see. As a result, it will not be very easy for the BJP to extract a victory from the jaws of defeat. Instead of focusing its attention on winning UP and the three other states where it is the incumbent, the BJP leadership may instead choose to be more prudent and to start laying the ground for recovery in the run-up to 2024.
(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)