It is Votes, Stupid!

Farmers during their a protest against the agricultural laws in Delhi. | PTI

In rolling back farmer laws, PM Modi didn’t back down. He made a clever and potentially a game-changing political move

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi’s rolling back of the three contentious farm laws on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak took everyone by surprise. It has been seen as a rare retreat by the PM who has assiduously built a strongman image who does budge from his decision, no matter what. In fact, this image was one of the major factors that catapulted Modi to power at the centre in 2014.

It is true that this image, in part, was also set off by his predecessor Manmohan Singh. Singh’s taciturn disposition and passive approach created a mass hankering for a new leader to speak, to interact and articulate the major public concerns and respond to them. More so, for a country that now reveled in imagining itself as a rising global power and thus wanted a leader who radiated some bravado. Modi easily fit the bill. He projected power and strength

Of course, there was much more to Modi: Before he became the PM, he was an engaging media story for the preceding one and a half-decade during which he incarnated as a strident proponent of Hindu nationalism and a kind of development messiah for his role in turning around Gujarat economy, a fact disputed by the opposition parties and some experts. This made him an all-encompassing persona that spoke to the prejudices, resentments and aspirations of the majority community.

In power, he has lived up to this image. Perhaps never in the past seven decades has any leader so fundamentally changed India as PM Modi. True, Indira Gandhi, a powerful leader like Modi,  created Bangladesh, and imposed emergency but she didn't tinker with the Nehruvian ideological basis of India. So, didn't Narsimha Rao, when he roped in the future prime minister Manmohan Singh, then a retired bureaucrat, as a finance minister to usher in liberalisation of the Indian economy, diluting the longstanding socialist moorings of the country. But Modi's term has marked a departure from all this. He has put India firmly on the road to Hindutva. He has shown the will to decisively alter the status quo to hone India to his nationalistic vision.

Call it decisiveness or overreach, Modi embarked on a series of far-reaching decisions starting with demonetization in 2015. His second term has been more disruptive in nature:  Following the withdrawal of Article 370 he moved fast to enact Citizenship Amendment Act and took steps towards pan-India extension of National Register of Citizens which together have made religion as a basis of Indian citizenship and enabled fast-tracking of the citizenship of the non-Muslim refugees from the neighbouring countries. The government has laid the foundation of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya taking the decades-long Ram Janam Bhoomi movement to its logical conclusion. Now revoked farmers’ laws were passed, triggering protests by peasants. New Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who supported the centre on J&K was himself disempowered with most of the powers being vested in the Lieutenant Governor.

In all the above cases, the PM didn’t budge, no matter the intensity of the opposition to the moves.  In Kashmir’s case, he risked the adverse international fallout which, however, didn’t materialize. Even Pakistan which claims Kashmir and could have been expected to escalate the security challenge in the former state shied away. But in regard to farmers, Modi has made an exception. The analysts have generally termed this as a result of the year-long resistance by the farmers. True, farmers have been unremitting in their protests, despite losing over 600 people. They braved the chill of last winter and accusations from the top of being "andolanjeevis" and  "Khalistanis", the latter tag reserved for Sikh farmers. Still, the union government stood unmoved. Throughout the year, it gave no indication that it was going to take back the laws - it only offered to defer their implementation until 2022. But then the PM, as he does with all his big-bang announcements, suddenly declared that the laws were no longer in force.

"Maybe something was lacking in our 'tapasya' [penance], which is why we could not convince some farmers about the laws," he said.

So, the question now arises is if the withdrawal of the laws was the outcome of the failure of tapasya as Modi concluded or the steadfastness of the farmers’ protest.  It was neither. The decision, one can credibly argue, was dictated by cold electoral calculations as it came ahead of the elections early next year in key states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which were the principal sites of farmer protests and where the BJP is in desperate need to shore up its support. More so, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, where the chances of the BJP returning to power don’t look all that bright and where the BJP needs a victory to stay in the reckoning in 2024 general elections. In India, over 50 percent of the population makes a living from agriculture. Farming forms about 15 percent  of the nation's $2.7 trillion economy.

Any party that ignores farmers does so at their peril. In both states, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, farmers form a substantial vote bank. In the upcoming elections, this deeply alienated section of the population would not only have been expected to vote against the BJP but would also have vigorously campaigned against the saffron party.

The PM didn’t and wouldn’t have done this in the case of anti-CAA protests, no matter if the protests hadn’t been aborted by the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nor would he ever do this for Kashmiris, no matter how much the latter seethe over the unilateral withdrawal of Article 370 in August 2019.  The reason is simple: The BJP not only doesn’t count Muslims as a vote bank - an adversarial stance towards the community is the party’s USP - but the population of Muslims themselves is too insignificant to have any say in the national politics - least of all that of Kashmiri Muslims with a population of around eight million. This shouldn’t have been so in a democracy but this is the bitter reality of our times.

In rolling back farmer laws, the PM didn’t back down. He made a clever and potentially a game-changing political move.


Views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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