In a surprise move on the occasion of Gurupurab, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation and announced that the government would take back the three agricultural reform bills passed by Parliament last year. This leads to a number of obvious questions. First of all, why would the government do that? What did the Indian farmer get out of this? What did the opposition get out of this? What does this mean for the future of economic reform in India? And finally, now that the protesters have got exactly what they wanted, why do all their leaders have glum faces?
Beginning with the motivations of the government, one can speculate in at least three ways. In the prime minister's words, the government failed to convince a section of farmers about the benefits of the bill. The obvious reference is to Punjab, which is a state with a troubled history. The other side framed the issue in overtly religious terms. Khalistani elements mingled quite openly with the protesters, serving a deadly cocktail of religious hatred and separatism. The protest sites outside Delhi had turned into a military encampment of sorts, patrolled by fanatical religious police. In particular, the grisly public execution of Lakhbir Singh for alleged “blasphemy" in the wee hours of the morning of 15 October showed how explosive the situation had become.
Second, this rollback shows yet again how politically difficult it is to carry out economic reforms in India. Would these reforms have benefited the Indian farmer? The consensus position among economists, except for the most intellectually dishonest ones, was yes. And even for the handful of those economists opposing, you can go back and find them advocating these exact same reforms under patronage of a previous government.
But that counts for little. Despite everything that the reforms of 1991 have done for us, suspicion against the free market runs deep in our national psyche. We had the shining example of 1991 in front of us, but it still did not matter. People always worry about change. But the reforms of 1991 made everything better. Except in the agriculture sector, which those reforms did not touch. We have been doing agriculture the old way, with licences, quotas and subsidies, for 70 years. The farmers are still suffering. Is there really another subsidy out there that will magically make things better for the Indian farmer? If there was, wouldn’t some ruling party have thought of it already and secured the votes of 50 percent of the population?
But socialism is a form of superstition, and you can’t argue with that. And you cannot expect a ruling party to put its political fortunes at risk by asking such tough questions. The farm law issue turned into a classic case of a vocal minority versus an ambivalent majority. A small group is highly motivated and energised in opposition, while the rest are unsure, waiting to see if there are benefits. The other day a lot of Modi supporters on social media wondered aloud if the great Ronald Reagan could have been forced into a similar retreat. Probably not, but then this is not Reagan’s country. Ours is a center-left country. We do not run away from the word socialism, we worship it. That will take a long time to change.
In order to bring about the change, one has to appeal to the Indian mind at a deep level. It is not enough to rail against the failings of the old system, or point to examples from America or Europe. That would just make the reformers appear out of touch with the vast majority of Indians. In order to understand this point, you only have to listen to the prime minister’s speech, which was an absolute masterclass in communication. The prime minister invoked the term ‘tapasya’ and admitted that he had come up short. The image is that of the seeker, pure of heart but imperfect, and struggling every day. Until they come upon the gift of knowledge. An appeal woven around the Indian mind, rendered in an idiom that is truly Bharatiya.
The third aspect of this climbdown is that the BJP refuses to risk its carefully built social coalition. Would the BJP have won even with some erosion of Jat votes in western Uttar Pradesh? Very likely so. What about Haryana? Over there, the BJP’s core is that of non-Jat voters, and so it wouldn’t matter very much. In any case, Haryana elections are not due until after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. But it is clear that this is not how the BJP under Modi thinks. This social coalition, in which the BJP emerges as the number one choice in every single caste group, has been in the making for 100 years. It is historic in nature, and the BJP cannot risk it because it intends to play a long game. And in the long game, whoever stays in power will get their agenda implemented sooner or later. It is just a matter of time. For now, the government has gone into tactical retreat, and will live to fight another day.
Let us now come to the Opposition parties. They have embarrassed the government, yes. They win the day. But one has to ask if they have a strategy for Day 2. On the big scoreboard, it still reads 300 for the BJP and 50 for the Congress. Does the latter have a vision that will help them reverse the score, go up to three hundred, or even one hundred? The five states with the most Lok Sabha seats in India are Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Will this win help them get back in the game in even one of these five states? If not, then what have they achieved? They knew that these reforms were in the interest of the farmers. These reforms had been in their own manifesto. So what was the big aim of these protests? Just a little easing of the bitterness of losing two successive Lok Sabha elections?
Then there is the much vaunted civil society, which is celebrating a great victory. They trotted out their nice sounding rhetoric on human rights, social justice, gender equality and such to give cover to the most regressive elements who led these protests. The environmentalists came forward to give cover to crop stubble burning and to ways of agriculture that are destroying groundwater levels. The ones who generally cannot stop talking about secularism were euphoric in their support for Khalistani elements and for playing up the Sikh-Hindu divide.
How did Punjab, with a horrific child sex ratio of 846 females for every 1,000 males, become a poster child of women empowerment? Because the liberals sprinkled magical fairy dust on it and declared that women farmers were actually leading the movement, putting an end to all patriarchy in Punjab. We lived to see the day when supposed feminists came out in support of the Khap panchayats of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Remember this. Remember that every ideal that so called civil society claims to believe in is a lie.
And while we are on the subject, note that this was a movement of the most empowered, land-owning castes. The social groups at the bottom of the village hierarchy were completely absent from these protests, and very likely not welcome. Yes, the rhetoric from ‘enlightened’ civil society on issues of caste and social justice is just as empty as their posturing on everything else.
The final, most interesting part are the glum faces of “leaders” at the protest sites around Delhi. They won, didn’t they? Except they didn’t look like that on TV the other day. They appear unhappy. Unlike their foot soldiers who celebrated with jalebis, the “leaders” are not celebrating. They are huddled in meetings, whispering nervously to each other and speaking to the media as if irritated and angry. Of course they are. Because they have to go back now and figure out something else to protest about. They have to explain to their foot soldiers why they must remain angry. They have to present new plans of protest to their patrons and get them approved.
Remember what the prime minister said about ‘andolanjeevis’?
Abhishek Banerjee is a mathematician, columnist and author. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.