Modi backs down | Commonwealth Magazine
The government’s inability to gauge the mood of the electorate surprised even its detractors. For many years, the BJP’s strategy of just telling lies has been surprisingly successful. Despite a failing economy, disastrous response to Covid, increasing violence at all levels of society and social divisions rivaling those that existed at the time of partition, the BJP continued to enjoy an impressive level of public support. . But his missteps with farmers’ protests may be his downfall.
The discipline and creativity of the movement, along with its continued non-violence, has sparked admiration, affection and even fear here in India. Days after his camps were established on three of Delhi’s borders, farmers erected huge kitchens to feed the thousands and thousands of protesters. Toilets and showers have been installed as well as charging stations for mobile phones and laptops. To counter fake news in the media, the organizers started publishing a bi-monthly newspaper, Tractor time. The bulletins were shared on official Twitter pseudonyms and Instagram accounts.
The government’s denunciations of protesters went against what people were actually observing. On a trip to the Punjab in November, three weeks before the laws were repealed, my husband and I witnessed the level of public support for farmers. India is not a country of stickers, but we have lost count of cars with “No Farmers, No Food” signs. In the homes of friends we stopped to visit, we heard stories of heroic sacrifices by farming families and assurances of possible victory.
After the laws were repealed, we called these friends to see what they were thinking now. They were happy but also suspicious. They were sure it was an electoral coup, decided with little thought and no planning. A strategic and reasoned response, they said, would have included meeting with farmers and chief ministers of the states concerned and developing an alternative plan. Modi, they stressed, had not yet met any opposition leader, let alone a single farmer. A friend of ours who is a farmer said, “Who knows what tricks the Prime Minister will play after the election? “
Business and industry leaders are unhappy with the repeal, and the government will soon have to face the consequences of its failure to comply with the World Trade Organization’s free trade agreement, which the India signed in 2003. This agreement requires India to remove all government support (such as providing free electricity and guaranteeing a minimum price for certain crops) and to allow large companies like Walmart and Reliance to have a free hand in the country’s agricultural markets by 2020.
In any case, all the repeal has done so far is to bring farmers back to the status quo ante, which was miserable. The vast majority of them barely made a living, often unable to recoup their investments, let alone make a profit. Suicide remains alarming among Indian farmers. Farmers themselves say they need more markets closer to their farms, a minimum support price for their products, training in practices such as crop rotation, natural fertilizers and pesticides, and the promotion of agricultural cooperatives. None of this would be popular with the agriculture industry. But many Indians believe the country’s farmers are its last real hope for sustainable development and perhaps the only group capable of putting big business in its place.