Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a televised address this morning dramatically rolled back the three contentious farm laws which had seen farmers agitating for the past year. Modi has always projected himself as a “strong leader” who does not cave under pressure, so the unequivocal U-turn, which was accompanied by a curiously-worded apology, makes the entire announcement even more of a standout.
So what made Modi bend? The reason is the electoral flex and the serious chops that the farmers as a group don’t just possess but have displayed in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the two big states headed for elections. A luscious win in UP is absolutely critical for the BJP’s plan of a record third term in Delhi in 2024. This has been acknowledged publicly by Home Minister Amit Shah, stating “If you want Modi in 2024, bring Yogi back 2021”.
But let’s first look at Punjab where the cascading anger against the farm laws, which were pushed through parliament despite demands from the Opposition for detailed discussion, made the Akali Dal quit the Modi Government in September while also ending its decades-old alliance with the BJP. As a result, the PM’s party is contesting Punjab on its own, and while the party has some support in urban Hindu quarters, angry farmers have not allowed it to campaign in large portions of the state. With the farm laws now called off, the BJP can strike a formal deal with Captain Amarinder Singh, who exited the Congress earlier this month after the party forced his resignation as Punjab Chief Minister.
So far, Amarinder Singh had announced a new party (which is still to be registered) but had said only that some sort of collab with the BJP was not off the table. The farm laws prevented an official deal. Hitting the delete button for them means Amarinder Singh can be politically correct while working with the BJP now. And he was the first to thank Modi for the new move. He also pointedly acknowledged the PM’s apology to farmers which allows him the wriggle room to defend a BJP alliance, should he strike one. The laws had made the BJP near-toxic in Punjab, dominated by Jat Sikhs, who had the most skin in game.
The Congress, after appointing Channi Singh as Amarinder Singh’s replacement, still finds itself rowing against the waves of dissent rolled out everyday by eternal rebel Navjot Singh Sidhu, the party’s state chief. Sidhu seems to think he has a divine right to be Chief Minister and will keep working against Channi and anyone else who he sees as an impediment to his prize goal. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was slated to do well in Punjab, is yet to identify a Chief Ministerial candidate which is among the main reasons for its campaign seemingly losing some momentum. The Akali Dal has been badly burnt by its association with the BJP at the time of the farm laws being enacted. With these political coordinates, the BP can believe that PM Modi’s move today means it may not confront the total washout that was envisaged for the party in the Punjab election.
But the preoccupation for the ruling party is winning Uttar Pradesh again. Western UP comprises of the Jat-dominated belt where the BJP clocked two spectacular wins in 2014 (after the communal riots of Muzaffarnagar which saw a huge consolidation of the Hindu vote for the BJP) and in last year’s general election where the BJP bettered even that result getting nearly 91 percent of the Jat vote according to the Lok Niti CSDS survey. Farmer anger against the new laws was expected to rail into the Jat support for the BJP; today’s rollback is intended as a giant make-nice to them.
Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party chief, was counting on cashing in with the Jat voter anger for gains in an alliance with Jayant Singh and his Jat-dominated Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). The two have been campaigning against the BJP with the farm laws as their main ammunition. The BJP was spooked by the crowds Akhilesh Yadav had been registering at his rallies, admitted a BJP leader to me.
In early October, the running over in UP of four farmers by the car of a union minister, Ajay Mishra, served as a new galvanizing point for farmer protests. Yogi Adityanath did his best to contain the fallout but Mishra’s being allowed to continue as a union minister enveloped the BJP in terrible optics.
Modi will now spend the next three days in UP and will be there every week till the elections, now barely four months away. “We are hoping Modi and Yogi cement the voters to us. Modi in Western UP and Maharaj (Yogi) in eastern UP” says a BJP strategist.
The repeal underlines that the BJP, despite the findings of in-house surveys, will not chance the UP election. And that despite the effusive commentary of “godi media”, Modi isn’t buying his own press.
This is only the second time around in his seven-year-tenure that Modi has struck down a huge policy decision designed by him. The first was the Land Acquisition Ordinance issued of 2015 – the ordinance was allowed to lapse after the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi attacked the Modi Government as “suit boot ki sarkar” (a government for the rich).
The farm laws, which had been held in abeyance by the Supreme Court, had become a giant liability for Modi. With an apology, he has cast that off.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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