Updated: November 22, 2021 7:10:37 am
In the end it was not about the farm laws but about democracy and the right to protest. Democracy won. The most powerful Prime Minister India has seen for more than three decades bowed to the wishes of the people last week when he announced the repeal of the three farm laws. Those who believe that, in repealing these laws, Narendra Modi has reversed necessary agricultural reforms miss the point. If farmers were ready to risk their lives to protest laws that they believe would have left them at the mercy of corporations, then there was no point in the reforms. When he announced their repeal, the Prime Minister said that farmers would be consulted when his government initiated future reforms. This is good.
There is no question that agricultural reforms are needed. It was the manner in which these three laws were rammed through Parliament that led to a breakdown in trust between the government and the people, which it believed would benefit from them. On top of this came ugly attempts to stop protesting farmers from reaching Delhi and uglier attempts to malign people desperate enough to spend seasons of heat, rain and extreme cold in the open to make their point. Modi must take personal responsibility for the malignant campaign. It was his decision not to meet those who sat in protest on Delhi’s borders, and his decision to mock them as professional protesters by declaring them ‘andolanjeevis’ in Parliament.
Long before this inopportune comment, his army of social media trolls, blind followers and sycophants had started to shriek about Khalistanis and ‘anti-nationals’ having infiltrated the protest. To seriously believe that Greta Thunberg and Rihanna were in league with the Khalistan movement is to seriously need your head examined, but till last week this was believed by many who should know better.
Will they know better in future? Will they give up bootlicking for real analysis? Possibly not. But, it is probably time for the Prime Minister to acknowledge that his devotees have done more damage to his image than his worst critics. They have done this by spending most of their waking hours spreading hatred and venom, and it is this that has led to Modi being seen as a man who has divided India’s communities. And, not as the reformer he would like to be seen as. For a while now he has made abundantly clear that what he really wants is for India to walk more swiftly on the path to prosperity, and not continue with the agenda of hatred that has come to define Hindutva. But, if he has conveyed this message to his devotees, they show no sign yet.
Before he announced the repeal of the three farm laws, people already noticed that he was trying to change the agenda. Those who have the unhappy task of being forced to spend more time in government offices than necessary report that, in recent weeks, they had begun to observe that ministers dealing with the economy were suddenly eager to hear suggestions on how they could make the economy move faster. The Prime Minister himself is believed to have complained privately that he could not understand why businessmen had to deal with so many ‘compliances’. If it was these things that his devotees and the BJP’s army of social media trolls emphasised, the man they see as India’s saviour would perhaps not have such a hard time convincing his critics that he is working to make life better for the average Indian. And, most importantly, that he believes that democracy is to be cherished not just during elections but after they have been won.
When he announced the repeal of the farm laws last week, many of his most devoted devotees seemed visibly confused and clearly tongue-tied, as the much weaker social media army that supports Rahul Gandhi gloated openly. They posted video clips of their hero saying that the government would be forced in the end to repeal the farm laws. In doing this they showed that they had not understood that, in this moment, they needed to show grace, not gloating. For a powerful Prime Minister to have shown the humility to publicly acknowledge a mistake is a good moment for India.
The farmers understood this and celebrated by distributing sweets at their protest site. When reporters asked them why they were so happy, they admitted on camera that they believed that the repeal of the hated laws was a victory for them and a vindication of their long protest. They showed the grace to say that if the Prime Minister came and shared the sweets with them, he would be welcomed. They seem to have understood better than carping critics and know-all political pundits that this was a good day for India and a great day for Indian democracy.
It was a good day for Modi. He showed that he was a bigger man than he has been given credit for. He showed that he was ready to acknowledge that the will of the people is greater than the will of the most powerful political leaders. For the moment it is not about agricultural reform but about celebrating the strength of Indian democracy. This columnist is counted among Modi’s sharpest critics, but what he did last week has restored some of the faith that I once had in him.
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