The shift in PM Modi’s strategy
Beyond immediate polls, he is conscious of the need to come across as caring and benevolent when it comes to the poor and farmers
With Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, expect the unexpected: Unpredictability is an offensive armour for a crafty leader who likes to keep his opponents constantly guessing. This is why, two weeks since he rather dramatically announced on Guru Nanak Jayanti that he was withdrawing the contentious farm laws, laced with an apology, no one is still quite sure yet just why the PM finally relented.
Those who have observed Modi’s politics closely will recognise that repentance has never been part of the leader’s well-cultivated, strongman image. The truth is, this isn’t about a sudden change of heart, but a deliberate change in strategy.
Which begs the question: Why did Modi allow a farmers’ agitation — that was primarily limited to three states in north India — to force him to publicly retreat?
The most plausible explanation lies in the fact that, as an astute politician, Modi recognised that the protests could prove electorally detrimental ahead of a string of assembly elections, especially in the politically critical state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Elections are Modi’s “go-to” oxygen cylinder. Even as PM, he has plunged into every electoral battle with the same zeal that he once showed when riding pillion to put up posters at night for an Ahmedabad municipal corporation election in the mid-1980s.
But while electoral concerns might explain the timing, they don’t quite reflect the manner in which the PM appears to have personally acknowledged his failure in not being able to push through the farm laws. After all, Modi could easily have got any of his Cabinet colleagues to step up and take the blame for misreading the mood of the agitating farmers.
If Harsh Vardhan as health minister was made to pay the price for the Centre’s failure in anticipating the second Covid-19 wave, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar could have been made the scapegoat for the farm law debacle. That Modi chose to accept the responsibility reveals a strategic shift, howsoever momentary, in leadership style — from an imperious supreme leader to humble pradhan sewak. It is almost as if the seemingly indestructible “Big Boss” is trying to rebrand himself as an occasionally fallible leader, if only to remove the sting from his opponents’ prime criticism of being an arrogant autocrat. Recall also how the previous “suit boot ki sarkar” critique perhaps influenced the 2016 demonetisation decision and restored the PM’s credentials as an anti-corruption crusader.
This time, the apology can be seen as a tactical move linked to refurbishing the PM’s self-image as a protector of the garib kisan (poor farmer). Go through any major Modi speech on the campaign trail and he almost always refers to his commitment to the garib kisan. Modi could afford to antagonise India’s wealthy with his demonetisation gambit; he could even anger the middle-class by allowing fuel prices to climb. A large section of India’s rich and neo-middle class can, after all, be lured by a promised Hindutva haven that taps into sharp religious emotions.
But for the wider national constituency of the poor and farmers, the PM needs to be seen as a caring and benevolent patriarch above all else.
Ahead of the 2019 elections, the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi was an attempt to woo farmers with a minimum income support scheme. But this pro-kisan image took a hit when farmers were barricaded at the Delhi borders with iron spikes and barbed wires.
Some people even attempted to demonise the agitators as “terrorists”, a toxic campaign that only invited a backlash, especially among the farmers of Punjab. By the end, the battle was unfortunately no longer about the nitty-gritty of the farm laws, but about the optics of being perceived as “kisan virodhi” (anti-farmer), something which the PM could ill afford.
This is where the viral video of protesting farmers being run over in UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri by a speeding jeep on October 3, was arguably the turning point. The alleged involvement of a Union minister’s son in the gruesome incident was a major embarrassment. In a digital age, where news knows no geographical boundaries, it angered farmers in areas far removed from the original conflict zone. That a Rakesh Tikait-like figure was now attracting sizeable crowds even in Maharashtra showed that the Modi government could no longer afford to take the “andolan-jeevi” farmer protesters for granted.
In a sense, the government, secure in its massive parliamentary majority, has paid a price for not taking the farm agitation seriously enough for way too long. In the end, all the PM could do is cut his reputational losses. The repeal of the laws, therefore, isn’t about addressing the farmers’ anxieties, but rather because, in politics, there is always one inner voice that no leader can ignore: The sound of the election bugle.
Postscript: Just days before the farm laws repeal announcement, a senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader reportedly met the PM to “persuade” him to reconsider his stand. Then, Modi allegedly brushed aside the apprehensions by insisting that the new laws were a matter of conviction for him. What suddenly changed may seem mystifying to Modi watchers, but often ideological conviction in Indian politics must cede ground to electoral expediency.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal