Has Prime Minister Modi exposed his weakness by blinking first in the standoff with farmers?

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chhaya

The much-heralded view of Prime Minister Narendra Modi being an astute political and administrative mind flies in the face of his mishandling of the agricultural reform and the impending withdrawal of three laws aimed at achieving it.

What is most glaring about his blinking first in the standoff with millions of farmers is that he never attempted the obvious bypass of trying out the reform first in the 11 more than willing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states. Agriculture being a state subject in India, its reform too should have begun in states and having somehow managed to enact three laws federally, he should have first tested them in his party-ruled states. The Modi government could have asked their party ruled states to test the reform first through a cabinet action to implement those laws individually in their states first.

In making them a national mandate the prime minister gravely miscalculated the mood of the country’s farmers, especially in northern Indian states such as Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana.

If the laws were as good, essential and beneficial for even marginal farmers as his government claimed early on, their being in operation in those 11 states could have proved his case one way or the other. It is baffling why someone who projects himself as a sharp political mind did not think of this strategy. Now that he is having to yield so publicly to farmers and that too with an apology, some chinks have begun to develop in his political armor.

Of course, there is still enough time for him to turn things around before the 2024 parliamentary elections and likely paper over his clear failures in time for the state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab likely to be scheduled sometime during the February-March 2022 timeframe. The timing of Modi’s announcement to repeal the agriculture reform laws is widely seen as an electorally expedient move to placate the two states where the farmers constitute a decisive and politically potent force. Whether the calculated move made by the Modi government barely three months before the elections would be seen as sincere or cynical by the electorate is anybody’s guess.

Given that Prime Minister Modi and his chief political adviser, Home Minister Amit Shah are not known to move without ensuring political benefit, it is obvious that they understood that persisting with the three laws in the face of some 700 farmer deaths, widespread injuries and serious unrest could undermine their party’s prospects.

The three laws in question are Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. They were widely seen by the farmers for about a year now as handing over the agriculture sector to Modi’s rich industrialist cronies. They were enacted in September last year triggering immediate protests which have remained even after Modi’s assurance to repeal the three laws.

It is a measure of the dwindling trust in the prime minister’s word that some 40 farmer unions have refused to take his word for it and have insisted that they would end the protest only after India’s parliament formally repeals them from the statute books in the next few days. The Modi cabinet on Wednesday approved a bill to repeal these laws which will be introduced in parliament likely in the very first week of the winter session starting next week.

There are those in India who see the repeal of the laws as a strategic retreat by the prime minister who might have calculated the cost benefit of dumping the reform for now in return for his party’s continuing sway over the electorally powerful Uttar Pradesh and regaining agriculturally powerful Punjab which also happens to border Pakistan. As a frontline state to India’s most troublesome neighbor, Punjab means a great deal to the BJP which never tires of projecting its muscular approach to every policymaking.

The strategy of winning back the trust of the powerful farmer constituency in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh by repealing the laws is touch and go. There are no guarantees that it would work since the loss of credibility for the party generally and the prime minister personally is considerable. India’s famously politically savvy voters are likely to see through the self-serving nature of this announcement. After all, the prime minister could have withdrawn the laws even soon after the serious protests began and positioned himself as someone sensitive and empathetic to public opinion. He did not because there was apparent failure to gauge the mood and determination of the farmers, especially Sikh farmers who were spearheading the movement.

As a community Sikhs have a long history of not giving up once they make up their minds. To that extent the prime minister gravely underestimated their determination. The fact that many members of the BJP openly castigated the protesting farmers as terrorists is not likely to be easily forgotten just as neither are the draconian police measures taken to end the agitation. No one should be surprised if the farmers also speak through their votes in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh against the BJP.