Indian Prime Minister Modi announced on Friday that his government plans to repeal its controversial farm laws. These previously proposed pieces of legislation provoked one of the largest civil society movements in the country’s history. Farmers, a significant share of whom are Sikhs, protested these laws due to their concerns that they’d ultimately be to their detriment by making them dependent on agricultural corporations despite the state claiming that it would actually benefit them over the long term by giving them more flexibility to determine prices.
This move is a blow for the ruling BJP. The government clung to its contentious policy proposals despite the rising and violent opposition to it from the masses. The clashes that these protests provoked served to draw international attention to the issue, including criticism about sensitive domestic concerns such as the status of small farmers in society, the government’s relationship with certain corporations, and the state’s forceful response to disruptive protests. The end effect was that the BJP wasn’t portrayed in a positive light by the foreign press like it mostly was before.
However, the planned appeal of India’s farm laws was long overdue because this was the only move that could de-escalate rising tensions. On the one hand, it’s somewhat understandable why the BJP didn’t want to do this before because it feared fringe movements could exploit the optics of capitulating to grassroots pressure, which some were concerned. On the other, though, it would have in hindsight been better for the ruling party to have made a more sincere effort earlier on to listen to the farmers’ concerns instead of stubbornly insisting that the laws must be implemented no matter what.
The BJP’s leadership style was under intense scrutiny in the court of public opinion, both domestic and international, and the impression among many has been less than ideal. India practices its own form of democracy and claims to be the world’s largest example of this governing system, yet the relationship between the government and the governed during the past year’s protests didn’t appear to reflect what observers conventionally associate with that model. One would have expected the state to respond to this unprecedented grassroots movement a lot earlier pragmatically, but that didn’t happen.
That’s not to say that India is alone in this critical observation since even Western countries can be criticized for the way in which their governments have responded to similar protests during the same time. In fact, in some instances, their reaction has been much more forceful. They also generally don’t reverse the controversial policies such as those associated with containing the COVID-19 pandemic that provoked the public’s large-scale resistance. With this in mind, India can be both criticized and praised: the former for the delayed repeal of its farm laws and the latter for finally pulling that legislation.
Looking forward, this experience has served to galvanize certain segments of Indian society. The past year’s events also presumably led to more effective networking between the country’s activists. The opposition will try to capitalize on this, but it’s unclear whether the electorate will credit them for this development. After all, this wasn’t a Congress-led movement but a genuine grassroots civil society, one that was driven by a combination of India’s many small farmers, widespread sympathy for their cause, and opposition to the ruling party’s relationship with certain corporations. It wasn’t partisan in nature.
At the same time, though, the BJP would be wise to learn some lessons from what happened. It’s unrealistic to capitulate to public pressure every time there’s a protest, but the past year’s ones were truly unprecedented, and this observation was obvious long ago. The ruling party could have shown that it’s responsive to the people’s concerns by repealing the legislation earlier this year, but it probably feared that doing so might embolden fringe movements to resort to increasingly violent protests to push their agenda too. The resultant dilemma ultimately damaged perceptions of the BJP.