The protest against Modi’s farm laws, which began on November 26, 2020, stretched over the course of nearly a year. On November 10, 2021, 45-year-old Gurpreet Singh, a landless farmer, hanged himself from a tree just outside New Delhi, near where thousands of farmers were still camping in protest. Gurpreet Singh, forced by circumstances to sell his four acres of land in 2000, made ends meet by renting an acre of land. The long absence from his farming duties drove him to economic despair, leaving him with no options, he concluded. COVID-19, exposure to extreme cold and heat, and suicides killed more than six hundred protesting farmers. In a gruesome incident, a BJP convoy- allegedly commanded by the son of a Modi government minister- mowed down some protestors. Then, in a televised address to the nation on the morning of November 19, Modi abruptly announced that he was repealing the farm laws.

The protesting farmers had done their part, waging a successful battle against a government that had treated them with condescension. Democracy triumphed against all odds. Modi is probably the first prime minister to have so frequently addressed the nation on a nationally televised address. Of course, it helped that the coronavirus pandemic obviously gave him ample opportunity to talk directly with an anxious nation more often. Modi, who has mastered the art of skillful persuasion, courtesy the use of choreographed text and an obliging teleprompter, cultivating a trait that separates a winner from a loser, is effortless before the camera as a result. Forget the frequent prestidigitation of his speeches or the intermittent absurdity of his rhetoric. He coasts through it with insouciant ease. He enjoys the attention and his own striking ability to manipulate public emotions and bring them exactly where he wants them to be. Honestly, you cannot be a consummate politician without verbal dexterity and an extravagant dose of narcissism. He is also blessed with a preternatural seventh sense of gauging the public mood.

When he spoke on November 19, 2021, dramatically announcing the withdrawal of the three farm laws, capitulating to a nearly one-year long protests by farmers, Modi was cryptically giving his 2024 general election speech. A consummate politician, he withdrew the farm bills on Guru Nanak’s birthday, the founder of Sikhism.

Modi has a fetish for victimhood. It is never his fault; in fact, usually someone is trying to torpedo him. He chose to ruefully castigate a ‘small section’ of farmers who he could not convince of the revolutionary breakthrough. That was an illuminating confession. Since his government believed that the three bills were so salutary for the farmers, why had they recklessly flouted all norms of parliamentary protocol? There were no discussions or debates; the farmers were never consulted (barring perhaps some pre-selected stakeholders, who are supine pro-government lobbyists). The suggestions of many political parties to let a standing committee of Parliament scrutinize the nitty-gritties of the bills was deemed a superfluous exercise.

Reportedly, 750 farmers died during this tumultuous phase and like at the time of demonetisation (140 died then), the government even refused to shed the perfunctory crocodile tears. Farmers were vehemently denounced, bracketed as separatists with a diabolical plot to dismember India. Or else they were made out to be part of an international conspiracy to malign India’s reputation abroad. It was gibberish. Just like the great boondoggle, doubling of farm income by 2022. But the farmers were not the only ones who had been duped with false promises; so were the youth of India.

On May 2, 2023, India officially became the most populated country in the world at 1,42,57,75,850. It is a young country; over 65 per cent of its population is below 35 years of age. They were mostly jobless, but they had been given a grandiloquent assurance of 20 million jobs per year from 2014 by the BJP.

Those who have religiously followed India’s economic growth trajectory, particularly in sexy destinations like the World Economic Forum at Davos, will have heard of the term “demographic dividend” ad nauseam. India’s young skilled workforce was meant to unleash the formidable might of its economic prowess. The middle-income South Asian behemoth (now the fifth largest economy in the world) was meant to be the conjunct to the dazzling China-India century. But it has flattered to deceive. India seriously misunderstood what the unleashing of animal spirits really meant.

Of late, unemployed youth, ranging from 50-55 million as of December 2022, are mostly wasting their best years watching YouTube content, WhatsApp forwards, making Instagram videos (the TikTok ban has barricaded a huge revenue source), and doing odd assignments for measly pocket money. Even gig economy jobs, temporary in nature, are a godsend. Unemployment can become a social menace though; the adage, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop comes into play.

Several unemployed youths have discovered a darker, more diabolical alternative, which is financially remunerative: cow vigilantism. It is like a quasi-government job. They work as undercover agents of local police forces in states that have legally banned cow slaughter; a subject that is a hot button in BJP’s New India. “However, in the absence of adequate employment opportunities, it is not surprising that a large number of youth find the anarchic capitalism of Hindutva appealing,” Dhirendra K Jha writes. Joblessness was creating a mental health pandemic as well, but no one even bothered to talk about it. Is it any surprise that the land that exports yoga and meditation to the world languishes at an embarrassing 126 in the latest World Happiness Index?

Despite the big hype, the truth was that India’s economy had underperformed. The Gujarat Model, which had promised an economic miracle boilerplate for India, had turned out to be an Alice in Wonderland experience. Modi, whose knowledge of economics, had been once sarcastically dismissed by P Chidambaram as one “that could be written at the back of a postage stamp” had voluble cheerleaders who had propagated “Modinomics” as a counterattack. Only nobody knew what that meant. After the economic Armageddon called demonetisation, branding Modi’s economic policy appeared to be an act of delicious overkill. Modi had surprisingly followed the Left-leaning economic construct of the Congress, by focusing on welfare subsidies, which had been spun using the local dialect to appeal to Hindi heartland voters as “labhartis” (beneficiaries). Most TV anchors sold what is staple government subsidy programmes for the underprivileged and those who live below the poverty line, as Modi’s far-sighted pro-poor programmes.

After boasting about providing two free gas cylinders, subsidised or free food, cheap housing, and a nominal minimum payout to farmers, Modi suddenly felt discomfited when the Opposition trumpeted him on his own home turf by offering similar programmes in their election manifestoes. The truth is all central and state governments led by whichever political party have the onerous responsibility of bridging income inequalities, alleviating poverty, providing basic minimum living standards, etc. Thus, every political party liberally commits large expenditures on the teeming masses. Modi, taking legerdemain to a new high, called the Opposition initiatives “revdi” (a famous sweet from the land of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh).

In short, he termed them as freebies, devoid of commercial budgeting sense. These would create a black hole in state finances and could end up bankrupting the financial system, just because Opposition parties wanted to attract votes from gullible voters, he alleged. The pot was calling the kettle black. The BJP was the prime proprietor of the freebie culture, especially financially profligate when it came to Big Business. Modi gave it an atrocious electoral pitch: “Freebies are dangerous for the youth.” Coming from a party which had promised the youth of India 200 million jobs by 2023, and provided at best 2 million, it had to be the most Amazonian bluster.

There was a political ploy behind Modi’s “revdi” sales call; it would please the angry middle class, who had suffered enormously on account of poor to dysfunctional governance (with their woes including unemployment, high oil prices, EMI defaults, stressful urban life, corruption, mental health, etc.) and felt cheated, by diverting their attention towards others who could be blamed the poor and the underprivileged needing social welfare subsidies. The middle class had mostly fallen hook, line and sinker for the Rightliberal leitmotif of “povertarian economics”; they had been made to believe that their hard work and the taxes they paid were being channelled towards less deserving sections of India who were poor or lazy or both. It is a time-tested formula employed by divisive leaders.

Excerpted with permission from 2024: India in Free Fall, Sanjay Jha, HarperCollins India.