Is Narendra Modi’s policy reversal on farm laws a political stratagem?

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

It says a great deal about India today that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apology over and promise to repeal hugely contentious farm reform laws are being met with either outright derision or utter devotion.

Depending on which side of the partisan fault line one might be, the prime ministerial apology and promise could either be a cynical, expedient electoral stratagem or a gesture of a deeply empathetic and democratic leader. It is not hard to guess who’s who here. Modi’s seemingly rising numbers of antagonists find his unprecedented move as not necessarily recognizing the wisdom of yielding to a year-long continuing agitation by tens of millions of farmers but a ploy with an eye on the two upcoming elections in the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

That the prime minister chose the occasion of Guru Nanak Guru Parab, the most revered day for the country’s Sikh community, to announce his promise to repeal the three farm laws as well as apologize for the torment it has caused is seen by his detractors a classic Modi move—transparently self-serving. Even his use of the word ‘Tapasya’ or penance has been met with a great deal of mockery by those who oppose him.

For Modi’s ever voluble political base though the move, while greatly embarrassing in reality, was quickly spun as yet another great example of his statesman-like vision that put the country before his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While many of his base are openly disappointed at Modi’s backpedaling the farm reform policy, they also dutifully buy into the official party line that he acted in the larger interests of the country.

Some 700 farmers have been killed and hundreds injured during the year-long agitation that ran into rather draconian police response. Early on, the official response to the agitation was one of surly dismissiveness from not just the government but even BJP cadres. As the agitation persisted and even brought in floods of tens of thousands of ordinary farm families from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere the approach changed and became more aggressive. Apart from throwing up barricades in their way and overnight erecting concrete barriers with spikes in them, a view began to be circulated that at least in part the agitation was instigated and funded by separatist pro-Khalistan elements from Canada, Britain and the United States. The narrative changed into the agitation being a growing national security challenge with such nefarious forces getting involved.

It is conceivable that there was some measure of those elements behind-the-scenes, but the agitation was by most measures a spontaneous show of complete rejection of the farm laws that many farmers’ groups insisted were designed to a handover the agricultural sector to the prime minister and the BJP’s crony industrialists as part of the ongoing culture of granting political favors.

It is to the credit of the ordinary farmers that they persisted despite constant demonization by the party in power, including by the prime minister himself who called them “Andolanjeevi” in Hindi meaning sort of habitual, knee-jerk and professional agitators.  Down the party hierarchy, the descriptions for the agitating farmers were cruel and crude.

Now that Modi has chosen to use the platform of the Sikh community’s most important day on November 19 to signal his willingness to repeal those laws and packaged the promise with a rare apology, there is a clear sense among his opponents that it is no more than an expedient electoral move just before the two crucial state elections. The BJP cannot afford to lose Uttar Pradesh and is desperate to win Punjab and if it means junking a set of laws that the prime minister himself championed with such gusto, so be it.

Contrary to expectations that the promise and apology could end the agitation and send the farmers back to their homes, they have doubled down saying they will do so only once the laws are officially repealed during the upcoming winter session of parliament. It is a measure of the distrust in the word of the country’s prime minister that it did not end the agitation. Large sections of those agitating as well as Modi’s political opponents suspect the repeal promise might just be a pre-election stratagem. However, the fact that Modi has publicly committed to repeal the laws in the upcoming parliamentary session means that he could be sincere. In any event his intentions would be tested in a matter of days.

It is always dicey to speculate whether the reversal, perhaps the biggest of its kind for the prime minister personally, would bolster his party’s prospects in the state elections or prove a shot in the arm for the opposition parties, mainly the now deeply embattled Congress Party. To his credit, months ago Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had said eventually the Modi government would be forced to repeal the laws. Now that it has happened it would be reasonably to expect that his party would step up its campaigns in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab around versions of “I told you so.”

Whether the obvious policy failure would have any grave implications for the prime minister and his party in the 2024 parliamentary elections is anybody’s guess.