Stand-up comedian Vir Das created a stir with his “There are two Indias” speech at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC recently. While some faulted him for criticising his country while on foreign soil, others lashed out at the fact that he dared to find fault at a time when the country is being governed by someone no less than Narendra Modi himself.
While I do not agree with all that Vir Das said, he does have a point when he says there are two Indias. In a country as diverse as ours there have always been differing viewpoints but with the advent of social media, these differences have only become louder and more in your face. And unfortunately, in Modi’s India the differences have also become very polarised. Everything is viewed from a political lens, even Covid vaccinations. And so you have the BJP applauding the Indian invented Covaxin, while the opposition questioned its credentials and backed Covishield which may have been made in India but was invented on foreign soil.
The farm laws too were seen through the same lens; some backed these and those who saw this backing as anti-national. That narrative played out for a while and then, almost a year later, the Prime Minister decided to repeal these laws. Again, this move was seen by some as the PM buckling in the face of an unpopular move, while others saw this as a surgical strike on anti-India forces. The narrative backed by the latter goes like this— that the PM saw how anti-national forces especially those backing Khalistan were using the anger against the farm laws as an instrument to destabilise the country and were funding the protests against the government. And to put a stop to all this on the grounds of national security the Prime Minister in a very statesman-like move took back the farm laws. But then, what does it say about the Prime Minister’s ability to safeguard his country against ‘vested foreign interests’? By buckling down, hasn’t he set a precedent for those who want to destabilise our country that these kinds of protests do work? Witness the sporadic but renewed demand for a rollback of CAA and Article 370 that is now coming up. This line of argument doesn’t suit the PM’s narrative.
And of course, those who backed the former line of thought claimed that the PM had backed down due to the coming elections, not so much in Punjab where the BJP has little chance with or without the farm laws, but because of Uttar Pradesh where the farmers protests could impact as many as 100 plus seats in western Uttar Pradesh. With the SP and RLD teaming up, these seats could go to this alliance.
However, I am not so sure if either of these arguments works. Opinion polls have shown that the farmers do not vote as a bloc, as do various castes. Moreover, take the recent bypolls in Haryana where the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Abhay Chautala won the Ellenabad by-election by a margin of 6,748 votes against the BJP’s Gobind Kanda. This was the first major election in the state since the farmers’ agitation began and was a triangular contest between the ruling BJP-JJP, the Congress, and the INLD. And Sirsa has seen its share of farmers’ protests and anger against the government. Yet, the margin of win for the INLD candidate was very narrow. And more to the point, the PM has shown that if anyone can sell an unpopular decision, it is him. Remember demonetisation?
Was the rollback then a reaction to the Lakhimpur Kheri violence against farmers, for that seems to have lost the BJP both the farmers’ goodwill (if there was any) as well as the Brahmin sympathy (if there was any left for the saffron party after Yogi’s unstated policy of Thakurs-first)?
My feeling is that the PM decided to bite the bullet on the farm laws in face of international optics, rather than domestic electoral compulsions. Yes, we are told time and again by the ‘bhakts’ that the PM does not care about `biased, liberal-leaning western media’. But here is the catch: of course he does. Look at the emphasis he lays on foreign policy and wooing global leaders. As he should. India does not live in isolation and with a hostile China and Pakistan on our borders, we need a credible global reputation. Being statesman-like and giving in to the farmers is a step in that direction for we were acquiring the label of a democratic dictatorship. And then there is the opportunity cost of appeasing the farmers. It gives him the right image at a time when the opposition is accusing the Modi Government of appeasing two industrialists.
And second, remember this is not the first time that the PM has given in to the farmers’ cause. One of the first decisions of the Modi Government in 2014 was to bring in pro-industry amendments in the UPA’s Land Acquisition Act. However, these amendments were rolled back. The farmers may not vote as one comprehensive bloc, but being anti-farmer has never helped any politician either. There is a reason why farmers have a fifty per cent stake in that evocative slogan, Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan.
(Views expressed are the writer’s personal)