Is this a triumph for democracy or a sign of democratic failure? Is this new evidence of India’s incapacity to change its economy or surprising proof that it remains politically plural? The Prime Minister’s decision to repeal the three agriculture legislation set to take effect in 2020 is all of these things.
It is Narendra Modi’s greatest significant political defeat in his seven years as Prime Minister. In terms of history, you may have to go all the way back to the anti-Hindi-imposition movement of 1965 to find a comparable example of the central government changing course in the face of citizen outcry.
Was it just a case of bad news from the state of Uttar Pradesh’s west? Many advocates of the government’s alternate theory, that the rollback was driven by national security rather than electoral concerns, does not hold up under inspection. If social harmony in Punjab was so important to the government, it wouldn’t have spent the previous year seeking to label a major segment of the population as violent secessionists. The way in which the announcement was made, on Guru Purab, was typical of the Prime Minister’s electoral-minded attitude.
Whatever your feelings about the legislation’ substance, the farmers’ movement ought to be respected. The government’s attempts to characterise the protestors as Khalistanis, foreign agents, wealthy middlemen, or violent anarchists in the media failed to register beyond the echo chamber of the government’s core supporters. The general public was split between supporters of the farmers and others who were neutral or uninterested. There was no strong support for the legislation, and there will be no citizen demonstrations if they are repealed.
Those who oppose the farmers’ methods – which are predominantly nonviolent and Gandhian – must answer the question: when genuine liberal-democratic modes of redress are blocked, what alternative there to nonviolent protest? Those who now claim that a “street veto” will be exercised over future government policy have forgotten the crucial role of nonviolent street agitation in the BJP’s political and ideological growth, from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the 1980s and 1990s to India Against Corruption in 2011. The right to vote and the right to vote in parliament are not enough to define democracy. And the ability to alter, which includes repeal, is at the heart of democratic politics.
The disaster of the agricultural laws cannot be used to prove that India’s economy cannot be reformed by constitutional-democratic means. The means were simply not used in this case. The Prime Minister’s apology was for his inability to persuade, not for the legislation themselves. That persuasion work should have come before, not after, the passage of the laws. And the way that passage was handled in the Rajya Sabha was a disgraceful breach of parliamentary protocol. Building consensus and trust, as well as the ability to compromise, are qualities in short supply in this government.
The farmers have demonstrated that a cliché that holds true in electoral politics also holds true in the world of social mobilisation: the Modi-Shah BJP is far from unbeatable when faced with a truly dedicated opponent. In its meetings (the words “war” and “contest” are not relevant here) with the current avatar of the Indian National Congress, the BJP’s internal and public images of invincibility were established.
Consider the following scenario: The BJP won 303 of the 436 Lok Sabha seats it ran for in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It won 175 of 191 seats, or 92 percent, where the Congress was the primary opponent. It won 128, or 52 percent, of the 245 elections in which it faced a party other than the Congress. Ten of the current BJP Chief Ministers are from states where the Congress is the major opposition party. The BJP has only two Chief Ministers in the remaining 18 states, and is completely out of power in 12. Last year’s close election in Bihar pitted the BJP against the Congress in 33 seats. The BJP received 27 votes, or 82 percent of the vote. It had a 61 percent win percentage against other parties.
The BJP no longer controls nearly as much of India as the Congress previously did. When it comes to the BJP vs. the Congress, though, there is always one winner. True electoral rivalry between the two parties is a fiction due to their fundamental mismatch in terms of organisation, cohesion, drive, and ambition – in their core earnestness about gaining political power. Modi’s best chance of re-election in 2024 remains a contest that he can frame as a fight between him and the Gandhis.
However, the BJP may have been weakened as a result of the easy path to victory that today’s Congress has provided. This isn’t the first time the BJP has paid a high price for underestimating an opponent. There are also evidence that the Prime Minister and Home Minister are increasingly surrounded by subordinates who are unwilling or unable to convey bad news or constructive criticism, as spectators of the Congress are well aware.
Regional parties have debunked apologists for the Congress’ current leadership’s claim that it is unreasonable to expect the party to compete given the BJP’s financial advantage and media clout. The disparity extends beyond electoral results. Compare and contrast the examples of Arunachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa, and Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP was able to build or destabilise governments by drawing away huge numbers of Congress lawmakers, with the case of West Bengal, where the BJP is presently experiencing large-scale defections.
The values of solidarity, belief, and almost unearthly persistence have fueled the farmers’ political triumph. It was never permitted to become a tool for opportunistic individuals, unlike, instance, India Against Corruption.
These are the qualities that Opposition parties, both individually and collectively, will need to demonstrate in order to build on last year’s achievements. With one exception, they are already aware of another truth that the farmers have so eloquently demonstrated: political contests, whether electoral or otherwise, are not won on Twitter. This may seem self-evident, but the Congress’ leadership and, as the previous 24 hours have proven, many of its supporters are unaware of it.
(Aryan Jakhar is a journalist who has worked with several news web-portals like BusinessUpturn and more and now Aryan Jakhar is serving as an editor-in-chief and founder of The Shining Media.)
Disclaimer: The author’s views presented in this article are his or her own personal views. The facts and opinions presented in the article do not reflect The Shining Media’s views, and The Shining Media accepts no responsibility or accountability for them.