Indian society is remarkably diverse and consists of a variety of groups. While we are in the 21 stcentury, caste remains a burning issue as do religious identities. Now, more than ever, freedom of expression is under threat as the government flexes its muscles whether it be for Muslim stand up comedians or protesting farmers. It is worth taking a closer look at how India reached this stage.
Less than a decade back, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was trying to find its feet again. Vajpayee was no longer active in Indian politics and LK Advani’s influence was on the wane. The party was desperately in search of new ideas and on the lookout for a leader for the general elections of 2014. Against the odds, the ruling UPA alliance led by the Congress had been in power for two terms.
It was in this scenario that the BJP backed Narendra Modi to be its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections. Modi had been Chief Minister of Gujarat for nearly three terms. He was no stranger to controversy given the Gujarat riots which took place in 2002. However, the courts had acquitted him of the charges that he had presided over the murder of Muslims. Further, Gujarat was presented as a model Indian state to boost his credentials as a top class administrator. The public readily bought into this claim even though on parameters of health and employment, Gujarat had a mediocre record.
The smart strategy which the BJP adopted was that once they decided that Narendra Modi was their PM horse, they backed him all the way. Senior leaders such as Jaswant Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi took a backseat to allow the master oratory of Modi to flower. Modi took to campaigning with a vengeance and promised that black money would return to India and deposited in the accounts of the poor. He spared no words in criticizing Pakistan for it being a terror haven and drew huge cheers in his speeches as he crisscrossed the country and held a hundred rallies.
Meanwhile, the Congress with its dependence on Rahul Gandhi and his focus on farmers could barely put up a contest. The election results of 2014 were not a surprise as the Modi led alliance swept to power and decimated the Congress to 40 odd seats. Since 2014, Modi’s popularity has been unstoppable and he swept the elections of 2019 too notwithstanding his missteps with demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
Today, the BJP has over 300 seats of its own in the Lok Sabha which is a comfortable majority allowing it to pass laws without reaching across the aisle. However, where Parliament falls short, the people make up for it. As I write this, tens of thousands of farmers are camping at the borders of Delhi protesting the farm laws which the government passed through the Lok Sabha without any debate or discussion. Modi in his latest speech in the Lok Sabha said that the government was willing to change the laws if required and that MSP will always remain. The farmers are however not buying the government’s line. They fear their livelihoods would be destroyed if they are at the mercy of the private sector and have demanded a complete repeal of the laws.
Ever since Modi came to power, this is the first time that citizens have risen up in protest in these numbers. It is true that the women of Shaheen Bagh staged a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Registry of Citizens (NRC). However, that protest pales in comparison to the energy and endurance of the farmers that are at Delhi’s borders. These farmers are steadfast in their protests and have gone on record to say that they are willing to camp here for years if required. They have come armed with food supplies, set up a mini mall and most importantly have the determination to hold their ground.
These protests mark the first real challenge that Narendra Modi has had to face after he has come to power. It remains to be seen whether these protests will throw up a leader that can challenge Modi in 2024 elections. For people of an older generation, these protests bring back memories of the Jai Prakash Narayan movement against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Some critics have pointed out that India is currently in the midst of an undeclared emergency with free speech under threat, a pliant media and religions being targeted.
It remains to be seen how Modi handles the challenge that the farmers protests have placed before him. One of his key promises has been to double farmers incomes within the next two years. He believes that the private sector is critical to this endavour. But, how will he ensure that the private sector plays fair and doesn’t exploit farmers? The farmers are clear that they will not budge without MSP being written in the laws and Modi has promised that MSP will stay. If this is the case, how will a free market economy (private sector) function with socialism (guaranteed MSP). You cannot have your cake and eat it too.
There is no doubt that India’s agriculture sector is in dire need of reforms. Middlemen have exploited farmers for decades, pesticides and GM seeds have eaten away at the health of the sector like a termite and the health of citizens has been severely damaged. At his heart, Modi is a reformer. But you cannot simply be a reformer with good intentions. Quality reforms require critical thinking and impressive execution. So far, Modi’s missteps with demonetization, GST, COVID lockdown have only drawn the ire of critics. The difference with the farm laws is that the protests have united the farmers who are critical as a voting group.
In Modi’s seven years in power, he has never before been challenged by the people in this manner. India’s public has been remarkably steadfast in their support of their elected leader. It is true that by 2024, the farm laws may have been forgotten even though the Supreme Court has said that they should be delayed by 18 months. However, the Indian farmer has dug his heels around Delhi and is in for the long haul. The next few years, if required, will be a test of Modi the leader and the reformer. For the sake of India, one hopes that he comes through with flying colours.