The Modi government’s decision to repeal the controversial farm laws is a landmark moment. But quite what it signifies is very much an open question. The decision to repeal is the correct one even if it comes months late. Agriculture needs serious reform, but this legislation was not the reform it urgently needed. The deep distrust this legislation created would have, in the long run, made it harder to move Indian agriculture to a new sustainable and productive equilibrium. The repeal at least allows for the possibility of revisiting the real challenges agriculture faces, based on first principles and creating a new consensus. The rebuilding of trust is going to be a necessary condition for reforms that really matter. But, at the same time, there is also the risk that, chastened by this experience, no government will seriously think of agricultural reform. A version of the current status quo will endure for the foreseeable future, and that prospect is not a very comforting one either. Both the farmers’ movement and the government will have to show new creativity to move beyond the current impasse.
At first glance, this repeal reflects a simple story. It is a triumph of the staying power, solidarity and indomitable will of the farmers’ movement. It shows that old-fashioned organisation and mobilisation is the only way to crack the façade of total control that the government likes to project. The movement has forced the government to, uncharacteristically, eat humble pie. It has, for the moment, dented the self-image the government sought to project of being able to undertake what it thinks are reforms even in the face of concerted opposition. In some senses, the climbdown will be seen by the Prime Minister’s supporters as a betrayal of his own tough image. The government was clearly getting nervous about the implications of the farmers’ discontent and possibly feared electoral reversals.
There is a great deal of truth in this narrative. But one of the interesting things about this moment is that the concession has come at a time when the movement itself was dissipating. The farmers’ movement did not have overwhelming resonance outside Punjab and Western UP. The visible modalities of protest had, through various means, been cleared out, even though BJP politicians at the local level were facing resistance. In short, the government had the staying power to stare down and repress the protest. To a great extent it did, and could have continued to do so. The timing of the announcement is not driven by the momentum or power of the movement, which is why it is a bit of a surprise. But what the government seems to have recognised is that suppressing or managing a protest can, paradoxically, create a deeper simmering discontent that might be harder to manage.
It is tempting to explain the decision in a purely instrumental logic: The timing of the UP elections. And, of course, the government has again demonstrated its ability to surprise and constantly think politically. But the logic of the decision appears to be more complicated. The government may fear that discontent in Western UP might have reinforced the idea that farmers there need their own political representation through parties like the RLD and not rely on the BJP. Coming on the heels of rising input costs and fuel inflation, there is a potential for discontent. But this dynamic has been around for a while and would have been factored into the government’s calculations.
In purely political terms, the government is also taking a risk by repealing the laws. It shatters its own professed self-image. But this may not be of much consequence since the kind of voter who votes for the BJP for its supposed toughness will have nowhere to go, even if they feel betrayed. The second risk is that it emboldens civil society and social movements. This government has pretty much had a free run in containing or suppressing social movements. But its calculation will be that there is something so particular and unique about the nature of this protest that it will not be easy to replicate on other issues. If this is a triumph of sorts for social movements, it will be a one-off one. More worryingly, it is worth speculating on what the government might do next to burnish its image of toughness, now that it has lost face.
The Prime Minister, of course, framed the issue, as he always does, as driven by his own “pure” motives. Both the enactment of laws and the withdrawal, in his eyes, are expressions of the purity of his purpose. But the Prime Minister did not say that the laws were a mistake. He harped on the theme that the government simply failed to convince a tiny minority. But he did not quite explain why building consensus had become important after the fact. In a curious way, he also engaged in a political incitement of sorts — encouraging a kind of division amongst farmers, where those who opposed the bill are held to account. By removing the farm bills, he hopes the material and social contradictions within the farmers will again resurface.
But there is something about the framing of this decision that makes it more than just a question of immediate instrumental logic. And that something can be summarised in one word: Punjab. Punjab is crucial to this story. Electoral reverses and social movements can be managed. But the deep mistrust and alienation that was settling in Punjab, where for literally every citizen (even those more sympathetic to reforms), this had become an issue of identity, esteem and self-respect, posed a challenge of a different order. The government in no small measure contributed to it, by trying to delegitimise the movement. It itself contributed to creating a security dilemma. And now that it is faced with multiple security dilemmas on every front, from Kashmir to the Northeast, it had to engage in an act of retrieval. Everything about the Prime Minister’s framing, and the invocation of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, suggests that it recognised the need for the larger political retrieval of Punjab so it does not get marginalised from the national project. The government is clearly nervous. But the source of that nervousness is not just simple electoral logic.
The façade of the government’s omnipotence has cracked. That is a good thing for a democracy. But whether that leads to a new and constructive dialogue, and better reforms, or a sharpening of contradictions remains to be seen.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 20, 2021 under the title ‘The facade cracks’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express