Faced with a resilient farmers’ agitation for more than a year, the Narendra Modi government has decided to repeal the three contentious farm laws, making it perhaps the biggest political retreat by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since it assumed power in 2014.
What are the key takeaways from the latest turn of events surrounding the farmers’ protest? Here are four things that stand out:
BJP won’t risk political capital for policy credentials
It is clear that the farm laws have been repealed with an eye on coming assembly elections, especially the ones in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. While this is clearly the biggest political retreat by the BJP since 2014, it is not the first one. The government had done a U-turn on the issue of amending the Land Acquisition Act when protests erupted across the country during the first term of the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2015.
The underlying message is clear. The BJP as a party will never risk its political capital to establish its policy credentials. Modi, in his address to the nation on Friday, reiterated the claim that the farm laws were beneficial for farmers and the failure was only on account of making just a small section of farmers see these gains.
The retreat will get the BJP a lot of brickbats within the pro-reform lobby, both in India and abroad. Agriculture and labour are the two key sectors where the Modi government was expected to unleash reforms – the ideological consensus within the establishment has existed for a long time – and it stepped on the pedal on these fronts during the Covid-19 pandemic from a position of strength.
The latest move is a signal that reforms, even though the BJP claims steadfast commitment to the project, are not worth risking the political fortunes of the party. This is not different from the approach the BJP – perhaps in consultation with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – adopted vis-a-vis the core Hindtuva agenda during the Vajpayee years.
The BJP needed support from parties which were critical of its Hindutva agenda in the 1990s and it never jeopardised its shot at capturing political power by insisting on those issues back then. Even the BJP’s earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, was pragmatic. It worked with even the Communists to weaken the Congress in the late 1960s and the period before and after the Emergency.
Through this move, the BJP has underlined its political pragmatism. To be sure, it remains to be seen whether the BJP is able to minimise its political losses on account of the protests.
Right’s political pragmatism is in sharp contrast to the lack of it in the Left
The biggest example to prove this point is the conduct of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) in the aftermath of the Singur and Nandigram protests in West Bengal. There were enough signals that the party was losing ground much before the 34-year-old Left Front government was dislodged in 2011. Yet, the CPI (M) leadership in the state refused to let go of its stubbornness on the issue and has continued to defend land acquisition even after it lost power.
While one might argue that Communist parties hardly matter in Indian politics outside Kerala, the atrophying of the Left has been a huge boost for the rightward shift in Indian polity.
Invoking class hurts the BJP, culture and liberalism do not
The biggest success of the farmers’ movement was in establishing a narrative that the farm laws were not just anti-farmer but also pro big-business. The protest against amendments to the land acquisition law in the first term of the Modi government also did the same thing, best captured in Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s barb of “suit-boot ki sarkar” against the government.
That the BJP has finally backtracked on both issues shows that it fears being portrayed as pro big-business. This is hardly the case when it comes to attacks that target the BJP over its Hindutva politics. The fate of the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, best captured in the Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi or the lack of any political challenge to the BJP after the annulment of Article 370 that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir is proof of this fact.
While movements such as these can claim a moral high ground, they have hardly inflicted any political damage on the BJP. This offers a useful realpolitik lesson for the Opposition. It is better to challenge the BJP by invoking class issues in at least the medium term.
The limits of Mandal/Bahujan politics in today’s India
The advent of Mandal-based parties and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) coincided with the weakening of class-based movements, especially in north India. No one can deny the fact that the rise in Other Backward Class (OBC) and Dalit assertion broke upper-caste hegemony and associated oppressive structures in these regions.
While Mandal was an effective weapon against “mandir” (the BJP) in the early 1990s and 2000s, its political efficacy against the BJP has increasingly come under question in recent years. The biggest proof of this came in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh, when the BJP trounced even an alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP.
The farmers’ protest was unique because it was perhaps the first time in many decades that dominant castes such as Jat Sikhs and Jats led a movement against an all-powerful regime.
The fact that they managed to sustain the struggle and also achieve victory is a good occasion to ask whether an exclusionary Mandal/Bahujan politics has run its course in challenging today’s BJP. This question becomes even more pertinent when seen in the context of the BJP having an advantage among non-dominant subaltern ranks in most states.
Of course, the fortunes of any non-Mandal political strategy against the BJP cannot seek a restoration of the upper-caste hegemony that existed in the 1950s.