Modi responds to dogged India’s farmers’ protests with an unexpected move

Farmers protest during a tractor rally at the Inner Ring Road in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Anindito Mukherjee.

NEW DELHI – The Indian government on Friday repealed a series of reforms to the country’s agricultural sector, marking a rare political setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of a hotly contested state election that could determine his party’s grip on power.

The laws sparked more than a year of protests by farmers who doggedly occupied the highways surrounding New Delhi and held demonstrations that sometimes led to bloody clashes with police and government supporters. The reforms, passed in September 2020, rolled back government subsidies and price supports for staple crops including wheat and rice, and overhauled state-regulated markets where they have been traded.

Supported in principle by many economists and previously suggested by the opposition, the reforms proved to be an unlikely stumbling block for Modi, who has otherwise rammed through a number of controversial measures during his seven-year tenure – and rarely apologized for what were widely perceived to be policy missteps.

But on Friday, he did.

“I want to apologize to the countrymen, with a pure and true heart, that something may have fallen short,” Modi said in a televised address to the country.

He maintained that the farm laws would have liberalized the market and benefited farmers. But “we were not able to explain to some farmer brothers,” he said. “Whatever I did was for farmers. What I am doing is for the country.”

Modi’s reversal – and his tone of contrition – came as a surprise for many observers accustomed to a dominant 71-year-old leader whose brand is built upon his personal toughness, charisma and strident nationalism.

Modi stood firm after a 2016 move to abruptly eliminate certain denominations of paper currency proved disastrous for the world’s sixth-largest economy. He also did not publicly acknowledge any failures in the government response to the catastrophic pandemic wave that ravaged India this spring.

Despite large-scale nationwide protests, Modi backed a controversial law passed in 2019 that granted a pathway to citizenship for migrants of several religions, including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, but not Muslims. Earlier that year, Modi’s government unilaterally revoked the semiautonomous status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

For the past year, members of his party have gone on the offensive over the farm bills, accusing protesting farmers – many of whom are followers of the Sikh religion – of disloyalty and alleging they have ties to Sikh separatist groups and Pakistan.

But Friday’s climb-down underscored the stakes of the upcoming 2022 election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and an agricultural powerhouse that occupies more seats in Parliament than any other state, experts say. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party currently holds power in the state, and losing control this coming spring would hurt Modi’s chances in the 2024 nationwide polls.

Suhas Palshikar, a retired political scientist at Savitribai Phule Pune University, called Modi’s announcement a “political calculation.”

Modi has faced mass protests in the recent past over the citizenship law, but they were led by Muslim minorities and “there was no direct political fallout except in civil society,” he said.

“Here you have a large section of the farmers against them,” Palshikar said. “So this ‘surrender,’ as critics will call it, will at least save the day in Uttar Pradesh.”

In a country that frequently sees political demonstrations, the farmers’ protest stood out for its scale, imagery and sheer persistence. Tens of thousands of turbaned farmers have sat on the highways outside Delhi through a bitter winter, sustaining themselves in encampments, and outlasted crackdowns by police. In the face of a government known for its mastery of public relations, the farmers waged a Twitter campaign in which they accused Modi of killing them. It infuriated the government but captured global attention, with celebrities like Rihanna tweeting in support.

Rakesh Tikait, one of the leaders of the farmers’ movement and a figure seen as a political power broker in western Uttar Pradesh, said in a tweet that the protesters will not go home until the day the parliament repeals the laws.

Calling the announcement a defeat of the government’ arrogance, Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader of the Congress Party, which has struggled for years to mount a challenge against the BJP, declared it a “victory against injustice.”

Saba Naqvi, the author of a contemporary history of the BJP, said Friday’s decision could mark a significant shift in how the country views the party. The BJP has often been seen as a political juggernaut that portrays its opponents as unpatriotic and brushes them aside at both the voting booth and on the streets.

“The psychological cycle of fear of this regime will be broken,” said Naqvi. “The same farmers who sat down and protested for a year, who were hit with water cannons, who were beaten, who endured abuse on pro-government channels, who were described as anti-nationals have actually won.”

Palshikar said Friday represented an “extraordinary moment” in Indian politics that could reshape Modi’s “unyielding image.”

“They will have to either create a new image,” he said, “or make sure this moment is forgotten quickly.”




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