A victory for democracy, or a testament to democratic failure? Surprising proof that India remains politically plural, or fresh evidence of its inability to reform its economy? The Prime Minister’s withdrawal of the three 2020 farm laws is all of these things.
Politically, it is the most significant defeat of Narendra Modi’s seven years as Prime Minister. In historical terms, to find a comparable example of the central government reversing course in the face of citizens’ protest, you may have to go all the way back to the anti-Hindi-imposition movement of 1965.
Was it as simple as a case of bad news from western Uttar Pradesh? The alternative theory put out by many of the government’s supporters, that the rollback was motivated by national security rather than electoral concerns, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If social harmony in Punjab was so prominent in the government’s list of priorities, it wouldn’t have spent the past year attempting to characterise a large section of the state’s population as violent secessionists. The manner of the announcement, on Guru Purab, was in the Prime Minister’s familiar electorally-minded style.
Whatever your views on the substance of the laws themselves, the farmers’ movement deserves the highest respect. The attempts by the Centre and its outriders in the media to brand the protestors as Khalistanis, foreign agents, rich middlemen or violent anarchists failed to register beyond the echo chamber of the government’s core supporters. Public opinion at large was divided between those who backed the farmers and those who were neutral or apathetic. There was no deep constituency in favour of the laws; there will be no citizens’ protests against their repeal.
Those who condemn the farmers’ means – overwhelmingly non-violent and Gandhian – have to answer the question: what alternative exists to non-violent protest, when legitimate liberal-democratic forms of redress are denied? Those who now declare a “street veto” will be exercised over future government policy are amnesiac about the indispensable role of street agitation – not always non-violent – in the BJP’s own political and ideological rise, from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the 1980s and 1990s through India Against Corruption in 2011. Democracy cannot be limited to the exercise of the franchise and votes in parliament. And the essence of democratic politics is the capacity for change, which includes repeal.
Nor can the tragedy of the farm laws be used as evidence that India cannot reform its economy through constitutional-democratic means. In this case, the means were simply not applied. The apology actually proffered by the Prime Minister was not for the laws themselves, but for his failure at persuasion. That work of persuasion ought to have preceded, rather than followed, the laws’ passage. And the manner of that passage in the Rajya Sabha was a shameful subvertion of parliamentary norms. The building of consensus and trust are skills in short supply in this government – so too the capacity for compromise.
The farmers have illustrated that a maxim known to be true in electoral politics can also apply to the realm of social mobilisation: when the Modi-Shah BJP is confronted with a truly committed opponent, it is far from invincible. Both the BJP’s private and public images of invincibility have been forged in its encounters (the words “battle” and “contest” are not appropriate here) with the present avatar of the Indian National Congress.
Consider the following. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 303 of the 436 Lok Sabha seats it contested. In 191 seats where its main opponent was the Congress, it won 175 or 92%. Of the 245 where it faced a party other than the Congress, it won 128, that is 52%. Of the 12 current BJP Chief Ministers, 10 serve in states where the Congress is the main Opposition. In the remaining 18 states, the BJP has only two Chief Ministers, and is out of power entirely in 12. Last year’s close election in Bihar turned on the 33 seats in which the BJP faced the Congress. The BJP won 27 or 82%. Its win rate against other parties was 61%.
India as a whole is not nearly as dominated by the BJP as it once was by the Congress. But when it is a case of BJP versus Congress, there is invariably one winner. The two parties are so mismatched in terms of organisation, cohesion, drive and ambition – in their basic seriousness about acquiring political power – that genuine electoral competition between them is a chimera. Modi’s most viable route to re-election in 2024 remains a contest that he is able to define as a choice between himself and the Gandhis.
Paradoxically, however, the easy access to victory that today’s Congress has provided the BJP may have actually weakened the latter. This is not the first instance in which the BJP has underestimated an opponent at great cost. There are signs, too, of the PM and Home Minister – in a manner well-known to observers of the Congress – increasingly being surrounded by subordinates unwilling or unable to share bad news or constructive criticism.
Regional parties have exploded the excuses favoured by apologists for the Congress’ present leadership – that it is unfair to expect the party to compete given the BJP’s financial advantage and influence over the media. The contrast goes beyond electoral performance. Compare the cases of Arunachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa and Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP was able to form or topple governments by luring away large numbers of Congress legislators, with West Bengal, where it is the BJP that is now suffering defections at scale.
The farmers’ political success has been built on the virtues of unity, belief, and almost otherworldly persistence. Unlike with, say, India Against Corruption, it was never allowed to become a vehicle for opportunistic individuals.
These are the virtues that Opposition parties, individually and collectively, will need to display if they are to build on the successes of the past year. With one exception, they already understand one other truth the farmers have so vividly illustrated: political contests, electoral or otherwise, are not won on Twitter. This may sound obvious, but it remains lost on the leadership of the Congress, and, as the past 24 hours have shown, on many of their supporters.
(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of ‘Accidental Magic’.)
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