Till the farmers brought their trolleys, tractors and their protest to the borders of Delhi, Narendra Modi had the image of being the most powerful Prime Minister of India ever. This has changed. For the first time in seven years, he is beginning to look weak. Not just because the farmers openly attack him personally on national television but because he seems no longer to know what to do. So, his attempts to reach out to the protesting farmers are confused and confusing. One day he goes off to address farmers in Kutch and explains to them the virtues of the new farm laws. The next day it is some other group of farmers in Madhya Pradesh that he talks to but never directly to those who have been sitting on Delhi’s northern borders now for more than a month. Then there was that visit to Rakab Ganj Sahib gurudwara that was so transparent an attempt to placate protesting Sikh farmers that they would have seen it for exactly what it was.
All of this came after weeks in which he allowed his ministers and party spokesmen to use television debates and social media platforms to malign the protesting farmers as Khalistanis and Naxalites. When the Prime Minister changed track and began his efforts at placation even the most abusive of these spokesmen started to temper their abuse by praising the farmers as ‘equal to God because they feed mankind’. On the part of the government the softening has included assurances that every change that the farmers want will be made in the three new farm laws. This must mean that there are serious flaws in the laws.
Unfortunately for Modi his conciliatory gestures have come too late. It is no longer just about the farm laws, it is about other things. For a start there is the arrogance with which they were brought. In the words of one of the protesting farmers, “You tell us that these will be beneficial for us but why are you trying to give us benefits that we do not want?” So many farmers said this or something similar that famous TV anchors who usually exhibit their loyalty to the government in every show, began to tell BJP spokesmen that instead of trying to convince them of the benefits of these laws they should convince the protesting farmers.
It is also about unfulfilled promises. Farmers point out that when Modi became Prime Minister, he promised to double their income by 2022. Not only has this not happened but easier promises have not been kept either like the promise to ensure that sugarcane farmers were finally paid their dues by the mills they sell their cane to. And the promise that old debts would be forgiven those who could not pay them because of the terrible hardship they have endured in this year of disease, disruption and death.
Other things have now become part of the protest. Suddenly, the things that have been autocratically imposed in Modi’s ‘new India’ are attracting more notice than they have before. Dissent has been crushed ruthlessly in this new India, and for the sake of winning elections there have been unashamed attempts to sow hatred between Hindus and Muslims. These things have not gone unnoticed by farmers who the government believes are too stupid to know that the new laws benefit them. It astonished me to hear a white-bearded farmer tell a TV reporter that, “They want us to fight among ourselves but now we have all come together, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. We are all together now.” In the echo chamber in which Modi has functioned, especially since his second term began, these are not words that he would hear.
There is more confusion. His ministers may now be speaking in conciliatory voices, but BJP Twitter warriors continue to use social media platforms to spew hatred against the protesting farmers. Especially Sikh farmers. They rant hysterically about ‘international conspiracies to defame India’. They say that the same people who made trouble over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) are now using farmers to make trouble because their last attempt to disrupt and divide India failed.
The truth is that those who protested against the CAA were genuinely worried about the weaponisation of citizenship. The truth is that the farmers are genuinely worried about the new laws. The truth is that this has been a terrible year for India in every way and the pain caused by the economy hitting rock bottom is now beginning to hurt badly. If the Prime Minister had concentrated on dealing with the loss of jobs and income by putting together schemes that would directly transfer money into the bank accounts of those who are hurting the most, this sudden revolt against his government may not have happened.
Instead, he has chosen to follow the pattern that has become the leitmotif of his second term, which is to contemptuously ordain for the people what he believes is good for them. This happened first with the changes in the citizenship Act, then with Article 370 and now with the farm laws. The farmers have shown him that this kind of contempt for the people is not something that even the most powerful political leaders can get away with. Modi has been forced finally to step out of his echo chamber into the real world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 27, 2020, under the title “Confronting reality”.