The three controversial farm laws that were at the heart of one of the longest farmer-led protest movements since Independence will be withdrawn, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Friday morning.
For those wondering the timing of this announcement, it would be a mistake to see it as a generous large-hearted gesture made by Modi on the auspicious occasion of Guru Purab, a time when Guru Nanak’s birthday is celebrated in agriculture-intense Punjab and by Sikhs across the world.
The move needs to be understood in the larger political-economy context of the Modi government’s deeply-eroded trust-compact with Indian farmers, and the socio-political implications of it for the Bharatiya Janata party before two crucial elections: Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
Over past year, the government has done everything possible to defame, disrupt and discredit the protestors. Mainstream media amplified the government’s rhetoric while so-called experts and economists spilled rivers of ink to praise the laws and the economic benefits they would supposedly bring.
The government even tried to stop food being delivered at farmer-organised langars or community kitches by deporting some of those People of Indian origin who were financing these initiative.
Modi is usually prompt in sharing his condolences on Twitter when any tragic event happens. But ironically, he did not say a word over the past 350 days as more than 600 farmer activists died while protesting against the laws.
So, why speak up now?
Elections at play
With crucial state elections only a few months away in Uttar Pradesh, an announcement of this magnitude was not unexpected. After all, five years ago, ahead of elections in Indian big state, Modi decided to demonetise 86% of the country’s currency overnight. This severely hampered the campaigns of cash-dependent regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. For the BJP, cash was not a major issue, given that a lot of its local campaign funding has come via anonymous electoral bonds.
With respect to the farm laws, the scale of local resentment building up against BJP MLAs and MPs from farm-dominated Western Uttar Pradesh has been spoken about for some time now.
The Lakhimpur-Kheri tragedy added fuel to fire in Uttar Pradesh early in October, as a convoy in which a BJP minister’s son was travelling rammed into farm protestors, resulting in eight deaths and injuring many more. Many non-Sikh and non-Jatt farmers in Uttar Pradesh who had not felt connected with the protest-movement felt that if the “rich protesting farmers” could be crushed like this, they would be vulnerable too if they were on the streets.
Two days after the tragedy, a Scroll.in reporter wrote about the reactions of farmers from districts of Sitapur, Bahraich and Barabanki. Most viewed the events in Lakhimpur as a brazen act of violence by the Union minister, Ajay Mishra (and the BJP), and expressed solidarity with the Sikh farmers.
Furthermore, BJP supporters feared that voters would move away from the party in rural Uttar Pradesh, especially in Jatt-dominant areas where farm leader Rakesh Tikait helped the party win in 2014. This sentiment was also echoed by BJP-supporting Meghalya Governer Satyapal Malik in a recent interview.
Evidence of this has been evident seeing the massive-response to Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav campaign across the state’s farmland areas In Punjab too, the BJP’s electoral prospects to win by any form of a reasonable majority have been dreadfully low.
Even as Modi has his eye on the elections, it’s unclear whether his announcement will actually get the protestors to return home. For now, they have declared that they will stay at the protest sites on Delhi’s borders until the laws are officially withdraw by Parliament.
Nevertheless, Modi’s announcement – and acknowledgment of an error – reflects the success of satyagraha politics in India.
For many who have lamented India’s weakening democratic-credentials (including myself), there is solace in the fact that if resilient constituencies such as the women and youth (as seen in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens) or farmers demonstrate peacefully on the streets against an unjust law for a long time, leaders have no choice but to listen and act.
It is a difficult policy lesson for any government that perceives itself as decisive to abandon a coercive, top-down governance style and to pursue deliberative, decentralised models of governance, while operating within the constraints of constitutionally-safeguarded federal principles.
The protests also highlighted the value of collective public action and organised union groups in representing the concerns of economically vulnerable groups. Local (and regionalised) farmer unions across India are not just electorally important for parties to court during elections, but their presence has significant importance in representing (and amplifying) farmer concerns when mistakes are made.
The movement against the farm laws – much like the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens – saw various local unions and farmer based solidarity-networks come together over time. Despite the government’s hopes, the January 26 violence at Delhi’s Red Fort and the Lakhimpur-Kheri tragedy did not kill the spark. To the contrary, they helped in solidifying farmer unity even beyond Punjab and Haryana.
Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University.
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