Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared on Friday that he will abolish the unpopular agriculture regulations that provoked prolonged demonstrations by tens of thousands of farmers and posed a major challenge to his administration.
Farmers, who make up one of India’s most powerful voting blocs, have been camping out on the outskirts of the city since November last year, demanding that the regulations that they think would drastically lower their revenues be repealed.
Modi’s surprising announcement came in a televised national speech, only months before elections in crucial areas like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which are major agricultural producers and where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to bolster its popularity. It’s too early to tell if it’ll work, according to experts.
The prime minister has asked the protestors to return home, but the farmers have stated that they would remain until the laws are repealed, which will begin in December when Parliament convenes for its winter session.
“While apologizing to the country, I’d want to say with a true and pure heart that perhaps something was missing in our attempts, and we were unable to tell the reality to some of our farmer brothers,” Modi said during his speech. “Let us make a new start,” he added.
The action was a rare retreat for the 71-year-old leader, who has faced harsh criticism for other decisions his administration has made, such as abruptly banning high-denomination currency notes and removing semiautonomous powers granted to Kashmir’s Muslim majority.
Even in the face of sometimes violent demonstrations, he supported a citizenship bill that excludes Muslim immigration.
Farmers, on the other hand, are a very powerful voting group in India, both because of their enormous numbers and because they are frequently idealized as the country’s heart and soul. They are particularly crucial to Modi’s base, and they account for a sizable fraction of the population in certain of the states where his party is in power.
“Modi portrays himself as a fearless, unyielding leader who will not back down.” And now he’s done just that, to a farmer’s movement that his administration had been disparaging for months,” said Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program in Washington.
Modi has long defended the legislation, which was approved in September of last year, as crucial to modernize India’s agricultural industry. Farmers, on the other hand, were concerned that they would put an end to a system in which the government guaranteed prices for some vital crops, which had been in place since the 1960s to help shore up food stocks and avert shortages.
While the government stated that guaranteed prices would be maintained, farmers demanded legislation declaring that such prices were their legal entitlement. They argued that if they didn’t have assurances, they’d be at the whim of the markets, which would be disastrous, especially for the more than two-thirds of them who own less than one hectare (2 1/2 acres) of land.
Modi’s party was also chastised for refusing to provide more time for debate on the bill, reiterating charges that it has too often exploited its majority to force through legislation without enough input.
Farmers dug down on the outskirts of New Delhi in November last year, where they have camped out ever since, including through a hard winter and a coronavirus outbreak that decimated India early this year.
While the protests have mainly been nonviolent, protestors stormed the ancient Red Fort in the heart of the city in January, a highly symbolic gesture that exposed the extent of their opposition to Modi’s leadership. One demonstrator was killed and hundreds were injured in clashes with police.
During the rallies, dozens of farmers committed suicide or died as a result of harsh weather or COVID-19, which drew international support from rights activists and celebrities, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and celebrity Rihanna.
“At long last, all of our efforts paid off….” Rakesh Tikait, a famous farmer’s leader, remarked, “I admire the farmer brothers who were slain in this war.”
Celebrations were modest at Ghazipur, one of the rally venues on the outskirts of New Delhi, although some farmers handed sweets and danced to tunes.
The rallies’ organizers, Samyukt Kisan Morcha, said the government’s declaration was good, but that the protests will continue until the government recommits to the guaranteed-price system. A government offer to suspend the legislation for 18 months had been rejected by the demonstrators for a long time.
The action was praised by Modi’s party as a measure that put farmers first.
Modi “has again proven that he is devoted to the welfare of farmers,” said Jagat Prakash Nadda, head of the ruling BJP, in a tweet.
However, Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University in New Delhi, believes that while the announcement is noteworthy, the administration would have a difficult time convincing farmers that the repeal is more than just political expediency.
“The administration is likely to frame this as the PM listening to the people,” said Verniers, “but after a year of intense protest, acrimony, and violence, that concept will be difficult to sustain.”
The news was made on the day of the Guru Purab festival, when Sikhs, who made up the majority of the demonstrators, commemorate the birthday of their founder Guru Nanak. The restrictions have enraged the Sikh community, which makes up the bulk of the population of Punjab, one of the states that will have elections in the near future.
Modi’s administration first attempted to denigrate Sikh farmers by characterizing their concerns as religious nationalism. They were dubbed “Khalistanis” by some in Modi’s party, a reference to a campaign for an independent Sikh nation.
Such accusations backfired, infuriating the farmers even more.
The farmers were praised by opposition politicians, who had previously branded the legislation exploitative and backed the protests.
“The country’s farmers forced arrogance stoop its head through their fight,” India’s major opposition Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi tweeted. “Congratulations on your win over inequity!”