For the first time since India first celebrated Republic Day on January 26, 1950, there will be two parades in Delhi next week. One will be the official parade to which the only people invited now are high officials and their friends and relations. The other is a parade that is being organised by the people of our republic to which no officials have been invited. It will be a parade of tractors carrying angry farmers and their families. It seeks not to disrupt the official parade but to make the point that the government has stopped listening to the people. If this were not true, why would the Modi government insist on farm reforms that farmers so deeply resent that they have camped on the borders of Delhi for more than two months? The unofficial parade may be stopped from entering Delhi, but the farmers have made their point.
There was a time in the early years of our republic when ordinary people could attend the official parade. As someone who lived within walking distance of Rajpath, I remember well those cold, wet January mornings when we would go extra early to get good seats on the green wooden benches that lined both sides of the parade route. Security was no problem so we would carry with us baskets filled with food and hot beverages and wait for what seemed like hours for the parade to begin. It used to be a celebration in which ordinary people participated with joy and excitement. But, for many years now, it has been a parade which only VIPs can actually witness. This makes the other parade next week more interesting, even if it is stopped at the last minute.
The farmers are trying to be heard and the Prime Minister should listen. Last week an India Today poll declared that Narendra Modi is as popular as ever and that if an election were held today the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that he leads would get more than 300 seats. This could have more to do with the dismal state of the Opposition, but that is neither here nor there. Modi’s charisma, according to this poll, remains as lustrous as ever. So then why do we have this second parade taking place at all? Why have angry farmers been protesting on the borders of Delhi for more than two months? Why is the government unable to persuade them that the farm laws it has brought will be good for them? Why with even the media firmly on his side has the Prime Minister not been able to convince the protesting farmers that their protest is wrong?
Having mulled over these questions long and hard, I have concluded that the real reason for this apparent dichotomy is that Modi’s government is being seen as arrogant and contemptuous. When the farmers began their siege on Delhi’s borders, the first reaction of senior ministers was to charge them with being Khalistanis and ‘anti-national’. Some BJP spokesmen actually said on national television that this was nothing but a continuation of the Shaheen Bagh protest against the citizenship laws. In the case of that protest, it was easy to spread conspiracy theories because the protesters were Muslims. In the case of the farmers, it has not been easy to get away with wild charges because they responded angrily and often that it is their sons, brothers and fathers who defend India’s borders. Sikh farmers have been more aggressive because of the sly campaign the government has run that seeks to create the impression that it is only Sikh farmers who are angry about the new laws.
The truth is that arrogance has been the defining characteristic of Modi’s second term as Prime Minister. Parliament has been treated not (to use his own words) as that ‘temple of democracy’ on whose steps he bowed his head on his first day there. But, as a vehicle to ram through laws whether the people want them or not. This was easy when it came to the abrogation of Article 370 because most Indians outside Kashmir approved totally. It was with the changes to the citizenship law that things started to get more complicated. Modi’s ministers and his minions on social media shrieked their heads off that Indian Muslims would not find their citizenship under threat, but they remained unconvinced with good reason. In more ways than one the Hindutva project that has been launched in Modi’s second term has made it clear that Muslims are second-class citizens.
Instead of trying to address their fears, the response has been to pass ludicrous love jihad laws in BJP-ruled states, whose main purpose seems to be to jail Muslim men who marry Hindu women. This is a law that demeans women by denying them the fundamental right to choose who they marry, but somehow BJP chief ministers do not see it this way. Could it be because, in emulation of the Prime Minister, they have decided that they know best what is good for the people? This contempt for their opinion is something the people have noticed, which is why we have seen this spate of public protests. An alternative Republic Day parade in Delhi next week could be the beginning of something that bodes ill for Modi unless he resolves to listen to the voices of the people.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 24, 2021 under the title ‘Listen to the people’.