First came the retreat. Then the surrender. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stunning decision to repeal the three farm laws will have three repercussions.
First, it will be seized upon by the Opposition as a sign of Modi’s political vulnerability to concerted pressure. The farmers’ agitation was never aimed at repealing the farm laws alone. The subterranean objective was weakening Modi ahead of the spate of Assembly elections in 2022 and the Lok Sabha poll in 2024.
Second, parallels will be drawn between the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-II government’s abject surrender to Anna Hazare in 2011 in its eighth year in office and the BJP-led NDA government’s surrender to the farmers’ agitation in its own eighth year in power. The end result for the Congress was a collapse in credibility and a rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The parallel, however, needs a caveat. The UPA government was immersed in alleged corruption scandals. With or without the anti-corruption crusade of Anna Hazare, it was heading towards defeat. The Modi government is in a far stronger position. But warning lights are flashing.
The third repercussion of the decision to repeal the farm laws is the strengthening of a nagging perception that the Modi government will put bad politics ahead of good economics. The three farm laws were beneficial for 95 percent of India’s farmers. Repealing them sets back agricultural reform by a decade.
Worse, giving into the bullying of violent farm union leaders like Rakesh Tikait may not have the outcome Modi is banking on. Tikait and his fellow-wealthy farmer-politician leaders will now twist the knife in. Having bludgeoned the government into defeat, it will manufacture yet another set of demands on, for example, passing an MSP law in Parliament. When you resort to a policy of appeasement, you surrender more than just your credibility. You surrender your political options.
It can be argued that while the repeal is a nakedly political move, Modi knows what he’s doing. You don’t win five consecutive elections (three in the Gujarat Assembly and two in the Lok Sabha) without exceptional political acuity.
The reasoning is that the farmers’ protests were likely to hurt the BJP’s prospects in western Uttar Pradesh in the 2022 Assembly polls. The entente cordiale between the Jats and Muslim worries the BJP. In 2013, following riots in Muzaffarnagar, the cleavage between Jats and Muslims had widened. The farm laws and shrewd politicking by Tikait have bridged the gap. It could have an impact on key seats in western Uttar Ptadesh.
Meanwhile the enthusiasm with which former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has greeted the repeal of the farm laws could lead to a seat sharing deal with the BJP in the Punjab Assembly polls early next year. The Akalis are watching developments carefully. So are the Congress and the AAP. They will have to recalculate their projections and reset their tactics. A hung Assembly looms in Punjab.
Isn’t that precisely what Modi wanted? To retreat and then strike?
Whatever the electoral consequences of this decision, Modi must remember that retreat can become a habit. We saw the Citizenship (Amendment) Act being put in cold storage with rules not yet notified. The government has sought time till January 2022 to issue them. The golden rule is: Don’t pick a fight you aren’t sure of winning. Once is a coincidence. Twice is carelessness. Thrice is unprincipled.
Modi is the consummate politician. But he is not infallible. By repealing farm laws designed to modernise agriculture he has taken a step back in his reformist agenda. It’s not his first. He retreated amid protests on land reform. Labour reform remains a work in progress.
Winning elections is important. Standing by sound economic principles is equally important. That is a question on which the electorate will shortly deliver a verdict.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.