NEW DELHI – Narendra Modi dominated politics in India for seven years. With broad public support and large majorities in parliament, the prime minister pushed through dramatic and sometimes damaging policies. His government fiercely defended a Hindu-focused nationalist agenda and used increasingly brutal tactics to silence critics, with little effective opposition.
On Friday, with a rare retreat, Mr. Modi suddenly doesn’t look so dominant.
Modi said his government would repeal three farm laws aimed at fixing the country’s struggling farming sector, in a surprise concession to year-long protests from farmers fearing the revisions could ruin their livelihoods.
The government, he said in a televised address, “will begin the process during the parliamentary session which begins this month. I urge the protesting farmers to go home to their families, and let’s start from scratch.
Mr. Modi timed his announcement for Guru Nanak Jayanti, a holiday celebrated by Sikhs, as a nod to India’s Sikh minority community, which forms the basis of the protest.
“Today I ask my compatriots for forgiveness and say with a pure heart and an honest mind that there may have been some loopholes,” he said.
The speech stunned Indians accustomed to Mr. Modi’s usual position as a muscular leader impervious to criticism. But it signaled that its position had weakened amid a variety of issues, including a disastrous response to a second wave of coronavirus and a struggling economy.
“Modi’s image as a tough and pragmatic prime minister has suffered a huge dent,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister who resigned from Mr. Modi’s party in 2018.
Mr Modi himself remains popular, according to some polls, and the disorganized opposition makes it highly unlikely that he will lose power.
But in May, his Bharatiya Janata party suffered a decisive defeat in an election it deemed winnable in the state of West Bengal. Polls show the BJP’s lead in Uttar Pradesh – a state seen as an indicator of the national vote and which will hold elections early next year – has weakened.
Part of this weakening may be the result of protests by farmers. After more than a dozen unsuccessful rounds of negotiations, farmers changed tack this fall, following senior officials in Mr. Modi’s government as they campaigned in Uttar Pradesh and northern India .
In one such clash in October, a BJP convoy slammed into a group of protesting farmers, killing four protesters as well as four others, including a local journalist. The son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers is among those under investigation in connection with the episode.
Since then, Akhilesh Yadav, an opposition politician and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has staged huge election rallies which have worried the outgoing BJP leadership.
“The BJP of the rich wanted to deceive the poor and the farmers with the acquisition of land and these black laws,” Mr. Yadav said. in a tweet Friday.
The withdrawal of Mr. Modi could give a boost to Indian democracy, said Gilles Verniers, professor of political science at Ashoka University. With the opposition divided and the populist Mr Modi enjoying broad support, his government lobbied political opponents and decided to quell criticism online and in the media, making the government less responsive.
“This shows that even if the government repeals these laws for electoral reasons, elections still function as a formal mechanism to control governments,” Verniers said. “It also shows that more substantial aspects of democratic participation, such as civil protests, can be successful. “
He added: “This is good news for India’s failing democracy.
Mr. Modi and the BJP have been pressured in the past, but more often than not they have been able to resist it. In 2015, during his last major retirement, the government abandoned plans to reform farmland sales in the face of protests.
A year later, the government has stuck to its guns after small businesses came under fire over Mr. Modi’s sudden decision to scrap old paper money. And in 2019, he held his own despite nationwide marches against a law that provided a fast track to citizenship for foreigners of all major religious denominations in South Asia except Islam. .
But the party has stumbled recently, especially painfully in a country with an aspiring population and dreams of competing economically on the world stage.
India’s economy has been hit hard after Mr Modi put the country under sudden national lockdown in March 2020 to fight the coronavirus. The government became complacent after this first wave ended, leading to a devastating second wave that filled hospitals and crematoria.
Mr. Modi’s government has since recovered with a strengthened immunization program, but the epidemic has claimed countless lives and millions of homes threatened to emerge from the middle class.
In this context, Mr. Modi became increasingly vulnerable to protesting farmers – a group that has proven to be resilient and well organized.
Economists widely agree that India’s agricultural sector is in need of an overhaul. His farms grow some crops in such excess that they rot in silos or are exported, while people suffer from malnutrition elsewhere in India.
Mr. Modi’s government had argued that the new laws would attract private investment in a sector on which more than 60 percent of the population still depend for their livelihoods. But farmers, already struggling with heavy debts and bankruptcies, feared that reduced government regulations would leave them at the mercy of the trading giants. Their suspicions grew after the BJP quickly passed the laws last year.
For more than a year, protesting farmers camped in tents outside New Delhi, scolding traffic. In January, as Mr. Modi watched a military parade through the city to commemorate a national holiday, farmers drove tractors through police barriers, killing one and injuring others.
Farmers refused to compromise unless repealed. They stayed in their tents through last year’s harsh winter, summer heat and the second wave of Covid-19, which wreaked havoc in New Delhi. Their campsites looked like small townships, with community kitchens, laundromats, and even gymnasiums and volunteer masseuses.
Until Friday, Modi and his supporters had stood firm, calling farmers secessionists and pawns in the service of opposition parties, and ignoring how agricultural reforms would benefit them.
“The government must have eaten a humble pie,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Narendra Singh Tomar, India’s agriculture minister, has always defended the laws on Friday, saying Modi had a “clear intention” to revolutionize agriculture. “I am sad that we have not been able to convince some farmers in the country of the benefits of these laws,” he said.
Demonstration leaders on Friday greeted Mr. Modi’s turnaround with cautious optimism, with plans to meet at the protest’s main site in New Delhi to discuss next steps.
Ramandeep Singh Mann, a leading farmer and activist, said he was “ecstatic” after hearing the news. “As if you had conquered Mount Everest! ” he said.
What remains uncertain, Mann said, is whether the government will accept the other major demand from farmers: a separate law guaranteeing a minimum price for crops. Mr Tomar said the government would form a committee to look into the matter.
For now, Mann said, farmers would continue their siege outside New Delhi’s borders until parliament formally repeals all three laws.
“Until that day, we will be there,” he said.
In Ghazipur, another protest site on the outskirts of the capital, the celebrations were moderate. Some farmers fired firecrackers while others distributed candy. Community kitchens which fed the protesters continuously for over a year served the usual rice, bread and chickpea curry.
“There is no trust, no trust in this government,” said Om Pal Singh Malik, a leader of the protest at the Ghazipur site. “If he was being honest, why doesn’t he call the meeting of Parliament now urgent? “
Jagdeep Singh, whose father, Nakshatra Singh, 54, was among the protesters killed in Uttar Pradesh last month, said the repeal was a testament to those who had died in the harsh conditions of a year of protests – whether it is because of exposure to extreme temperatures. , heart attacks, Covid-19 or higher. According to a farm chief, some 750 demonstrators died. (The government said it had no data on this.)
“This is a victory for all those farmers who sacrificed their lives to save hundreds of thousands of poor farmers in this country from corporate greed,” Singh said. “They have to smile wherever they are.”
Mujib Mashal contributed reports.