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Farmers Versus Modi: Reaping the Seeds of Protest

Three questions to Christophe Jaffrelot

Farmers Versus Modi: Reaping the Seeds of Protest
 Christophe Jaffrelot
Senior Fellow - India, Democracy and Populism

Narendra Modi symbolically chose November 19, the birth anniversary of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, to make a historic announcement. He declared that he will repeal three contentious agricultural laws which he had been staunchly trying to push for nearly a year. These laws, which aimed to liberalize a key sector of the Indian economy, had sparked massive and on-going protests by Indian farmers. Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po, covers Indian opposition to these laws and the political implications of their repeal by the Indian Parliament.

On Friday, November 19, 2021, Indian PM Narendra Modi announced the repeal of three contentious farm laws due to massive domestic opposition. What were the key elements of these three acts initially passed in September 2020?

These farm laws covered three main points, each dealt with in a specific legislative text. First, they ended the mandatory building up of stocks of agricultural products, except for in "exceptional circumstances". Second, they allowed farmers to sell their products in places other than State-regulated markets (including virtual ones, partly thanks to e-commerce). Third, the laws introduced forms of "contract farming" that allowed farmers to receive advances (particularly during sowing) from agri-food companies that would then commit to buying their produce. These measures to liberalize the agricultural sector were presented by the government as intended to promote private investment in a sector suffering from low productivity (notably due to a lack of irrigation and mechanization efforts).

Farming organizations immediately reacted against this new legislation. First, they demanded that minimum pricing be applied. The famous "Minimum Support Prices" that the Indian government has been applying for decades seemed to them to be the best way to escape the monopoly of companies that were going to dominate the agricultural market.

Farmers feared entering into a contractual relationship with these firms would leave them dependent. 

The government turned them down. The concern was further heightened when farmers realized that Indian multinationals seeking growth opportunities in agriculture included Reliance (owned by Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man) and the Adani Group (of Gautam Adani, India's second richest man). Farmers feared entering into a contractual relationship with these firms would leave them dependent and further degrade their (already precarious) socio-economic standing.

They thus mobilized heavily in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Delhi’s neighboring states. For a year, thousands of farmers demonstrated and took turns on picket lines around the Indian capital. Several hundred of them died of diseases (stemming from Covid-19 or weather conditions) or, sometimes, due to the severe repression they suffered. 

This announcement by Modi marks a turning point after nearly a year of massive national demonstrations across the country. How do you explain this historic backtracking on the part of the current regime?

The ongoing persistence of massive protests from Indian farmers (reaching their one-year anniversary with no signs of abating) was a serious political threat to Modi’s government. In early 2022, state elections will be held in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. These are very important elections for the BJP, New Delhi’s ruling party, which also governs Uttar Pradesh (the largest Indian state). The members of this state assembly represent a substantial percentage of the electoral college that appoints members to the country's upper house, which plays almost as big a role as the lower house. For years, the BJP has been striving to gain a majority in the upper house, but is currently only the largest party in that chamber.

Beyond this issue, the BJP hasn’t won a single new state since 2017. It cannot afford to lose Uttar Pradesh without giving the impression that its popularity is waning, an idea already fuelled by the health sector’s failures to address Covid-19’s second wave, and India’s economic crisis reflected in its record-high unemployment rates. In this context, repealing the farm laws is intended to limit the loss of seats in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. 

The ongoing persistence of massive protests from Indian farmers [...] was a serious political threat to Modi’s government.

Since taking power in 2014, Narendra Modi has never faced opposition of this magnitude, both in size and duration. Opposition parties, like the Congress Party, have used this to their political advantage. The announcement of the plan to repeal farm laws came just before the anniversary reform vote, when major protests were expected. What are the political implications of this unprecedented repeal for the Modi regime?

Opposition parties have mostly taken a back seat during this year of farmers’ mobilization, which has seen the resurgence of an agricultural union movement that had not been able to make itself heard since the 1980s. Two questions then arise. Has the historic victory of the agricultural movement given rise to a "farmers’ vote", against the BJP and in favor of parties like Congress in Punjab (where this party is still in power but divided) or the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party) in Uttar Pradesh? The 2022 elections will provide an important answer to this question. Secondly, it remains to be seen whether the opposition will be able to revive a political agenda based on socio-economic issues. The BJP has imposed an identity-based repertoire over the past seven years, exploiting religious cleavages and capitalizing on Hindu nationalism. If voters re-evaluate their priorities and focus more on inequality - which has dramatically increased over the past seven years - the end of Modi's second term may look somewhat different and the farmers' movement might in retrospect turn out to have been a turning point.

But Narendra Modi is very resourceful and this episode reveals his strategic ability to play politics, backtracking when necessary. That said, he has stuck to his guns for a very long time on this issue. Re-engaging with the farmers may prove to be a particularly arduous task...


Copyright: Xavier Galiana / AFP

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