“The strongman finally blinks,” was how one commentator put it. On Friday morning, India woke to a surprise announcement by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, that he was repealing the farm laws, which have been at the heart of one of the greatest challenges his government had faced in almost eight years in power.
It was a significant turning point, not only for the farmers, but for Indian politics and the reputation of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government. Since Modi was first elected in 2014, his modus operandi has been that of a tough, unyielding, authoritarian strongman leader who does not bow to public pressure.
Modi did not apologise after the catastrophic policy of demonetisation in 2016, when millions of banknotes were suddenly taken out of circulation, strangling the economy. His response to opposition in the disputed region of Kashmir, after his government unilaterally stripped it of its semi-autonomous status in 2019, was to bring in hundreds of thousands of troops and implement an ongoing crackdown. He did not back down later that year when millions of people took to the streets after his government passed a citizenship law seen as prejudicial to Muslims. Nor did he apologise for the mistakes and government missteps during the devastating second wave of Covid in April.
Yet on Friday, there was Modi, in a rare tone of contrition, apologising to farmers, “with a pure heart and honest mind, that something may have fallen short”.
His conciliatory words of retreat have sounded hollow to many farmers. After millions of them rose up in opposition to the laws, Modi’s government has spent the past year throwing the full weight of the state at farmers to try to crush the dissent.
There was police brutality, teargas and water cannon to stop them entering Delhi. There were hundreds of arrests and police cases against farmers and activists supporting their cause. There were government statements against figures such as the popstar Rihanna and the environmentalist Greta Thunberg, who had voiced support for the farmers.
The government intervened to stop people tweeting to support the farmers. In parliament and at political rallies, ruling-party MPs repeatedly called the protesting farmers terrorists, Sikh separatists and anti-nationals who were conspiring against India and working for Pakistan.
But for the first time, none of it worked. The proud and equally headstrong farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, led by powerful unions, had made it very clear to Modi they would not be moved or disappear quietly. And unlike the other protests and challenges since 2014, this time the BJP had begun to pay a heavy political price.
Modi’s climbdown is seen by most as strategic political manoeuvring before the state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab next year, rather than driven by sympathy for the farmers. After recent poor performances in the West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh state elections, the BJP are already seen to be on the back foot. Keeping power in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the heartland of the BJP, is crucial for Modi.
But the farm laws, and the perceived mistreatment of the farmers – who hold a reverential place in Indian society – had clearly begun to erode BJP support in an already tight Uttar Pradesh election race, not helped by the farmers’ unions who had pledged to put all their efforts into taking votes away from the BJP. The situation became even more dire for the BJP after four peacefully protesting farmers were run down and killed in Uttar Pradesh last month, seemingly on purpose, and the son of a senior BJP minister was arrested in connection with the deaths. The attack repulsed even those not sympathetic to the farmers.
Modi’s perceived surrender is sure to dent his reputation as a strongman to whom no dirt sticks. But for many, the greater significance is that it has reaffirmed that the power that sustained protest and struggle – the basis on which independent India was built – still holds. Under Modi, dissent has been systematically and successfully crushed through an authoritarian mix of draconian legislation and state machinery. Activists and critics are regularly jailed under terrorism laws, civil society groups have been hounded and shut down and protests are repeatedly met with force.
Friday’s retreat was therefore hailed as a rare and much-needed triumph of democracy, in an India otherwise sliding fast towards authoritarianism. As one protesting farmer said proudly on Friday: “In us, Modi has met his match.”