On November 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did something that he isn’t known for – revoke a major policy decision under public pressure.
He even topped it off with a public apology, which is a far cry from his otherwise haughty and unrepentant style of leadership. Whether it was a faux apology or a genuine one is a different matter.
Why did Modi walk back on the controversial farm bills after a year?
To put it simply, the costs of defending and maintaining the laws in the face of a year-long resistance by farmers had risen dramatically. With elections in the agrarian states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh looming over his head, Modi couldn’t afford to appear dismissive of farmer unions, which have a strong sway in both states. And he certainly can’t afford to lose a crucial state like Uttar Pradesh – the hearth of the modern Hindutva political project.
But, the electoral imperative is a secondary, derivative factor. This isn’t the first time important state elections are taking place in Modi’s India. More importantly, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s current senior leadership isn’t quite the type to reverse major policy decisions before state polls. It has other political tricks up its sleeve to stay ahead in the game and offset any negative impact of its national-level decisions on state-level constituencies.
Meeting its match
What really made a difference this time was the extraordinarily defiant nature of the farmers’ movement, which not just successfully weathered all kinds of pressure from the top, but also handled its internal contradictions and shortcomings with much aplomb. This is a government that has mastered the art of attrition when it comes to protests. But this time, it met it’s match in the farmers who kept at it through four seasons.
From overt force to covert subterfuge, the Modi government deployed every single strategy in its playbook to diffuse the protests, but failed miserably. Even a concerted attempt by the pro-regime media to demonise the protesting Sikhs as Khalistani terrorists, anarchists and what not fell flat on the ground. Let’s be clear – we don’t get to see this very often in Modi’s India.
Thus, to only attribute Modi’s turnaround to sheer electoral realpolitik, would be to underplay the movement’s own role in creating fertile ground for a pullback. Without the grit, tact, conviction and consistency that the farmer unions showed in the face of an insolent administration, the farm laws wouldn’t have become an election issue in the first place, that too an issue big enough for Modi to do the unthinkable – retrench and apologise.
A movement with an edge
But here’s another important thing about the farmers’ movement that helped it win – it had a certain degree of social, political and economic leverage that other mass movements in Modi’s India have lacked. This is both an organic leverage, and one that the movement leaders crafted from scratch.
First, the Hindutva regime can’t target farmers in a manner that it can target religious minorities like Muslims. Even for a government as malevolent and divisive as this one, a strategy of ignoring and vilifying the large agrarian voter base can be a huge political gamble. It can backfire not just at the polling booths, but also at a deeper social level within the ambit of the Hindutva project.
Second, the farmers’ movement cut across specific identities, which allowed the union leaders to forge a rare cross-sectional coalition and stand up for each other. While Sikhs, a religious minority that is routinely profiled with various derogatory political markers, remained a dominant force within the movement and were repeatedly demonised by pro-government elements, the North Indian agrarian class straddles many sub-regional and religious identities, which reflected very well in the movement.
For instance, Hindu Jats from the sugarcane belt in western Uttar Pradesh played a central role in the second phase of the movement. The leadership of Rakesh Tikait, who eventually became one of the most prominent faces of the movement, was instrumental in this. Even some Muslim farmers from the sub-region rallied behind him, despite his murky past as a prime agent of the anti-Muslim Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013.
Show of defiance
One could even argue that it was Tikait’s tactful show of defiance and emotions at Ghazipur in late January that took the spotlight away from the “Khalistani infiltration” narrative that reared its head after the dramatic farmers’ march into the Red Fort on Republic Day. It might have been an unintended outcome of his actions, but was effective nonetheless.
This multiplicity of identities, sub-regional leaderships and the solidarity between them erected a protective fence around the movement. More significantly, despite the many sub-regional identities at play, the farmers, as a class of protestors, had become a singular political force. It was clear that eventually, the Modi government ran out of ways to deal with such a kaleidoscopic body of protestors with a common set of demands. It was no longer viable to launch sectarian attacks at one group of protestors without insinuating the others. Add to this the constant political risk of losing the agrarian constituencies for good.
This is where we come to the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act – how it is very different from the farmers’ movement and why Modi is highly unlikely to kneel before it.
The most obvious difference between the farmers protest and the movement against the citizenship initiatives is that unlike farmers, Muslims are not a core voter base for the BJP. Modi will not lose anything by plainly ignoring them. In fact, he stands to gain additional political points by crushing a movement that is primarily led by Muslims – the number one cultural enemy of Hindutva.
So, his government can go on dismissing them for years and still win one election after another. Occasionally, he can get a few of them thrown behind bars for “terrorism” or sedition and win a few extra votes in the next poll. While the government has filed hundreds of cases against protesting farmers too, the political costs of doing so are far lower in the case of Muslims.
Next, the farmers’ movement is based on a narrative that is primarily economic in its persuasion. Political concerns about the ruling party’s attacks on federalism and state excesses do routinely feature in union speeches and pamphlets, but the collective anxiety against privatisation of the agrarian market and the demand for a guaranteed Minimum Support Price continue to take centrestage in the movement repertoire.
This is compelling for all social groups invested in the agricultural sector in one way or the other. Even for the non-farming urban and semi-urban middle classes from the majority community, agrarian concerns matter as daily consumers of farm products. If not anything, farmer strikes affect them directly. That’s also why it eventually became a poll issue that the government had to take seriously.
This isn’t true in the case of the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is primarily centred around a single minority religious identity. The pool of stakeholders is much narrower here. While many conscientious Hindus participated in the movement, their numbers remained low and their commitment inconsistent. The social elite, including the Hindu middle classes in urban/semi-urban settings, remained apathetic – even hostile – to the movement.
The reality here is truly bleak: only Muslims stand to lose the most from the dangerous Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens combine while the others couldn’t care less. In fact, most of the others see the movement as, at best, an irritant and at worst, a destructive force.
Further, by strategically decoupling the proposed all-India National Register of Citizens from the Citizenship Amendment Act (despite Home Minister Amit Shah unambiguously linking them both in the beginning), the government was able to project the sectarian citizenship law as a benign amendment that doesn’t really affect Indian Muslims in any way. This diffused overall participation. No such tactical decoupling was possible in the case of the three farm laws.
In all, the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act lacked a watertight social coalition that could cut across identity and class lines, of the kinds seen in the farmers’ movement. It had no safety net that could absorb the state’s repressive and divisive offensives. This made it fairly easy for the Modi government to use the law enforcement machinery, pliant media and belligerent proxies to go after the protestors. The pandemic only came as a force multiplier.
Finally, if Modi revokes the Citizenship Amendment Act after repealing the farm laws, it would be nothing short of political suicide for the BJP. While the core party machinery is busy lauding him for the farm laws pullback, large sections of the wider Hindutva ecosystem are incensed. They see it as a betrayal, a meek surrender that is reminiscent of the seemingly weak Congress regimes. This is not the valiant prime minister they have grown to love.
There’s nothing to suggest that the Modi government isn’t aware of this. Modi is a leader who is highly conscious of what his people think about him. For him, his image is paramount. After all, that is literally the only pillar on which he has erected his shining political career. While he possibly has a plan to manage the publicity fallout (we don’t quite know what it is yet), bad PR from his own cheerleaders can very quickly spiral into a situation that even he could lose control over.
In such a scenario, revoking the Citizenship Amendment Act would defy all logic. It would only add to the badmouthing and alienate both hardliners and moderates. A strategy of attrition based on brute force, sectarian vilification and state intimidation has worked well for Modi with the protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act so far. There’s no reason for him to abandon that playbook.
As far as the electoral imperative is concerned, several state polls have happened since the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act began, but BJP never considered repealing the divisive amendment. In fact, it has used the legislation to energise the Hindu voter base and strengthen their numbers. For instance, in Assam, defying popular belief, the BJP secured a landslide win this year despite months of fierce protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
In short, the Citizenship Amendment Act has been a winning formula for the BJP from the beginning, unlike the farm laws. So the Modi government has no reason to junk it now.
This might be a cynical reading of the future, but it is crucial to understand the distinctions between the two movements precisely so that lessons can be learnt and strategies replicated. It is worth noting that the movement against the citizenship initiatives did manage to secure a critical concession – temporary rollback of the proposed all-India National Register of Citizens, which Shah had promised in the Parliament. Since the protests, he hasn’t mentioned it again. This too was no less than a victory, even if partial.
So, for the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act , the possibility of a total triumph remains. But for now, it remains hidden behind a thick fog of cynical politics, anti-Muslim majoritarianism and authoritarian arrogance.
Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi, and a former visiting fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.