If there’s one thing that has characterised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure, it has been the tendency to make dramatic policy announcements with little warning. Friday saw Modi continue with this pattern as he declared that his government would soon withdraw the three contentious farm laws passed by Parliament in 2020 in the “national interest”.

Aimed at liberalising the agricultural sector by allowing the entry of corporate investment and hence, the withdrawal of the state, the three laws were controversial from the word go. They were passed in Parliament without a proper vote by MPs. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s longest ally, the Akali Dal, quit the government on the issue.

Moreover, the farm laws led to large-scale street protests in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. For just under a year, farmers hunkered down in protest tent cities on the Delhi border.

A communal attack on protestors

Like it treated the participants in the Citizenship Amendment Act agitation earlier in the year, the Modi government left no stone unturned in attacking the farm protestors. This often meant the attack moved along communal lines: it attempted to tar the large contingent of Sikh protestors as separatists who were battling not for the repeal of the laws but Khalistan or a sovereign Sikh homeland itself.

In November, 2020 the head of the BJP’s all-powerful Information Technology Cell Amit Malviya alleged that the protestors had “Khalistani and Maoist” links. In January, a BJP MP took up the charge in Rajasthan. The Modi government even made this line official with the attorney general telling the Supreme Court in January that “Khalistanis have infiltrated into the protests”.

This narrative was then pushed by a large section of the mainstream media, which leans towards the government. In October, for example, as a horrific car attack by a BJP MP’s son on protesters occurred in Uttar Pradesh, the Times Now television channel thought it worthwhile to discuss with a BJP party worker if “Khalistani elements incited the violence”.

The Red Fort mobilisation on Republic Day was connected to ‘Khalistan’ by Zee News.

At the peak of this fevered pitch, the Delhi Police even claimed in February that young climate change activist Disha Ravi had collaborated with Khalistani militants by sharing a set of protest information. As it so happens, the same information – sensationally called a “toolkit” – was also shared by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

As could be expected, after this powerful, vitriolic pitch, today’s sudden retreat has left the BJP’s supporters confused and even angry.

A screengrab from BJP supporter and actor Kangana Ranaut’s Instagram page.

Media anger

A similar dynamic was seen with sections of the media that lean towards the BJP. After pushing a hard line with respect to the protestors, Modi’s sudden decisions left them high and dry. Some even questioned if a retreat on the farm laws would mean going back on other major policies like the repeal of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The confusion among supporters is not surprising. This is arguably Modi’s biggest setback in his seven years in power. While he had also turned back on pushing a new land acquisition law during his first term, the laws did not spark mass protests and certainly nothing as vitriolic as the BJP’s Khalistan push. Given how important Modi’s strongman image is to the BJP’s politics, the party will have to work hard to patch up the damage.