India: victory for the farmers
After a year of protests against unpopular changes to farming laws, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi backed down in November 2021. This was a rare concession from the authoritarian leader, who normally mobilises his hardcore supporters to ride out controversial measures. But the protesting farmers, a constituency normally not known for taking political stances, attracted widespread public sympathy and had the support structures needed to dig in for the long haul. Modi backed down because his unpopular policy risked losing support in upcoming elections. He should learn a key lesson: to consult and listen more to those affected by decisions rather than impose them unilaterally.
India’s farmers scored a rare victory in November 2021. After a year of protests at the introduction of new farm laws, strongarm Prime Minister Narendra Modi backed down. Modi’s climbdown proves that change can be won through sustained protest, even in the most unpromising of circumstances.
A defiant response
The farmers’ protests began after three laws were passed, with minimal consultation or scrutiny, in September 2020. The laws ripped up decades of regulations that guaranteed farmers a market and minimum prices for their goods, in favour of a free-market approach.
The government characterised the changes as giving farmers more freedoms, but farmers saw them as threats to their ability to make a living and suspected that Modi was trying to benefit large corporations with agricultural interests closely linked to him.
After months of local-level protests were ignored, the farmers’ defiant response was to take their grievances directly to the capital. They marched on Delhi until they were held on the city’s outskirts by security forces. And there they stayed, camping on through winter and summer, refusing to budge.
The government did its best to make them leave, particularly following a Republic Day protest in January that resulted in violent clashes between protesters and police. Following this, the authorities cut off water and electricity supplies to the protest camp, shut down internet access and sent hundreds of riot police to try to clear the camp forcibly; they backed down given the sheer weight of numbers opposing them. Numerous protesters were reported missing in the days following the Republic Day protest and heavy charges such as sedition and terrorism were brought against some protesters.
Rights violations continued. In August protesting farmers were beaten and in September water cannon was used against farmers defying a protest ban. And then in October nine reported deaths resulted at a farmers’ protest in Uttar Pradesh when a ministers’ car, allegedly driven by his son, ploughed into a protesting crowd. When people protested in response to this outrage, many were detained, with some only released after signing statements promising not to take part in further protests.
In it for the long haul
These did not look like the acts of a government about to back down. So why did Modi change his mind? As he reversed the changes, Modi made clear he still thought the new farm laws were the right thing to do but accepted they had not won support. This was an unusual thing for him to do. Modi has a track record of pushing through changes he wants even when the public reject them.
In 2016, Modi endured widespread backlash against a demonetisation policy introduced at short notice in which popular banknotes were withdrawn. This brought widespread hardship, particularly for workers reliant on daily paid labour, and long queues at banks. But the measure was pushed through regardless. Again in 2019, Modi rode out the storm caused by his sudden annexation of Jammu and Kashmir and introduction of citizenship laws that blatantly discriminate against Muslims. Modi can customarily rely on a rabidly Hindu nationalist support base, stoked by media and celebrity influencers, to turn fury on those who oppose him.
But the farmers were different. This was in the main not a previously mobilised community, but people focused on trying to keep making a living in difficult circumstances that became harder during the pandemic. Many of them are socially conservative – although importantly, women came forward as protest leaders during this struggle – and many likely voted for Modi’s right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the past.
The farmers were able to tap into a strand of broad public sympathy and identification with farmers that exists in Indian society. They also had strong support networks: while some farmers stayed in the protest camp, others took turns to travel back to their villages to keep tending the land. When a fresh wave of COVID-19 struck, farmers acted responsibly, setting up sanitation and disinfection systems in the camp. Support networks and community resources gave protesters the resilience to dig in for the long haul.
A strongman looks weak
As the farmers dug in, they changed Modi’s political calculation. He must have hoped farmers would have to head home to tend crops and protest momentum would fade. But as it continued, it must have it started to feel like a timebomb.
In 2022, some important state-level elections loom, notably in the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, where many of the protesting farmers are from. Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state, was in the last election a BJP stronghold. Winning last time gave Modi unstoppable momentum going into the national election; losing it next time would badly undermine his re-election chances.
Modi must have thought he could take the farmers for granted. They have proved him wrong. Now he must be gambling that, with the laws reversed, the farmers will go home, get on with their lives and forgive him.
Modi must have thought he could take the farmers for granted. They have proved him wrong.
But the farmers’ memory may not be that short. They know why Modi has acted now but they may well ask why he couldn’t give ground sooner. There remains considerable resentment at the year of suffering the protesters endured to regain the policies they had before, and about the considerable costs paid, measured in the deaths of protesters, the violence and other rights violations experienced, and the financial hardships encountered. The farmers’ bodies that coordinated the protests say that almost 700 people died over the course of protests, and are calling on the government to apologise and pay compensation; the government claims it has no records of the deaths.
Modi must learn the lesson. Any further farming reforms cannot be imposed unilaterally but must be negotiated with farmers and win their consent. With his hardman image now dented, Modi should change tack, show humility and demonstrate that he understands what true leadership is: not simply doing what he wants, but listening to what other people want, building consensus and acting accordingly.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
- The government should commit to dialogue with farmers’ groups about progressive reform to farming laws in ways that both sustain the livelihoods of farmers and help India meet its climate targets.
- The government should immediately release those detained for participating in protests and hold to account security force members who committed rights violations.
- Prime Minister Modi should enable rather than repress civil society and commit to ongoing dialogue to mitigate against the imposition of other unpopular policies.
Cover photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images