India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister isn’t given to apologizing. The media tried for years to find a sign of repentance from Narendra Modi, asking him if he regretted 2002’s pogrom in Gujarat against Muslims. This was when he was the state’s top-ranking official. The closest they ever got was when he said—more than a decade later—that it was natural for anybody to feel bad if a “puppy comes under the wheels” of a car.
So, when Modi made an apology of sorts on Nov. 19, promising to repeal agrarian laws that had triggered an unprecedented, year-long farmers’ protest, it was met with joy, surprise and skepticism in equal measure. While the opposition can’t stop exulting at Modi’s about face, it is also warning that it could be a ploy to revive the laws later. Modi apologized for not persuading farmers about the need for laws and not the actual measures.
Farmers, who protested for their rights in the agrarian sector, are celebrating this climbdown. But they are not calling off the protests until the formal repeal of the three contentious farm laws—which were, in essence, a bid to replace the government-controlled agrarian sector with the free market—and the introduction of guaranteed minimum prices for crops. That they won’t take the prime minister at his word is a function of the level of animosity between the two sides.
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Modi’s government has, for months, been trying to defame the protesters as terrorists and stooges of China and Pakistan, turned Delhi into a fortress to prevent them from entering the capital, and tried using force to break up the agitation. More than 700 farmers died picketing Delhi’s outskirts in the course of the year, which the protesters squarely blame on Modi’s railroading of the laws through Parliament without due process, and his stubbornness in sticking with them.
For a man whose followers believe he is a redeemer who knows how to make India right, it isn’t easy admitting that he got something this important this wrong. However, his problem right now isn’t with hubris. Modi will face a tough political test within three months when many states vote. His mea culpa, which is a desperate strategy retreat, is a chance to win a larger war for the Bharatiya Janata Party. While it exposes Modi’s weaknesses, the benefits of Modi’s climbdown could far outweigh any temporary humiliation.
The BJP’s power base threatened
Among the states heading into elections is the BJP’s power base of Uttar Pradesh, more commonly known as UP. With more than 200 million people, a population the size of Brazil, UP is one of the most backward of India’s 28 states—but it sends the highest number of directly elected parliamentarians to Parliament’s lower house, making it the most politically significant.
The farmers’ protests that have rocked the agrarian belt—stretching across western UP and the contiguous states of Punjab and Haryana—now threaten this bastion. Despite being overwhelmingly BJP-friendly in the past, UP appears to be on the verge of losing control due to growing farmer discontent. It didn’t help that the son of one of Modi’s ministers is facing allegations in the state of mowing down four protesting farmers with his car.
A poor showing in UP will shatter Modi’s image of invincibility and reenergize the opposition before the national election in 2024. Hindu-Muslim farmer solidarity also seriously threatens the politics of polarization that are the cornerstone of the BJP’s rise to power.
In UP, a Hindu nationalist campaign has waged a war against a mosque that was supposedly constructed on the spot of an ancient Hindu temple since the 1980s. After protests in 1992 that transformed the BJP into a major political party, the 16-century Babri Masjid finally fell to the ground. The BJP’s sustained campaign of hate in subsequent years deepened the religious divide in UP, helping it to strengthen its base.
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Within months of Modi’s victory in the 2014 Indian national elections, religious riots whipped up by the BJP erupted across western UP. They caused dozens to death, rape, and massive migrations of Muslims. As the traditional unity of Hindu and Muslim farmers snapped, the BJP, which had negligible presence in the region at the time, swept away a local farmers’ party and won all the seats there.
In 2017, the last state election was won similarly by polarizing voters through doubtful claims that Hindu families were forced to leave Muslim-dominated western UP. The promise to build a Hindu temple on the spot of the demolished mosque was the platform that the party used in the campaign. Modi fulfilled his promise and laid the foundations for the temple in the last year.
The farmers’ protest presents an existential threat to the Hindu identity politics that the BJP has used so well. Although touted as reforms, the disputed laws were seen by protesters as Modi’s sacrifice of the interests of ordinary farmers for the benefit his capitalist cronies. In recent months, the same areas of western UP that once exploded in religious riots—where the electorate was considered to have cleaved for good along sectarian lines—saw Hindu and Muslim farmers come together in large village meetings, and even chant each other’s religious slogans.
Modi could not afford to lose and continue fighting another day. They must hate one another, and not Modi. He wants them to be able to see their differences religiously, and not just the similarities in class.
Modi’s dream of a Hindu state
For Modi, UP is not just central to political survival but also to his larger project of remaking India’s secular republic as a Hindu state. This venture is a key success factor for UP’s current leader.
UP is run by a Hindu monk-turned-politician whose own vigilante group, open bigotry and incitements against Muslims make Modi look like a liberal. Yogi Adityanath is a rising star in the Hindu nationalist groupament and has been called Yogi Adityanath. He will be taking the Hindutva Project to new heights.
He doesn’t shy away from expressing hate or he won’t hesitate to use force for Muslims. His state has made hate speech and criminality against Muslims acceptable. Names of Muslim-sounding landmarks, cities and neighborhoods are being renamed. A slew of new laws has been passed against cow slaughter and religious conversions. These law also allow for police and vigilante organizations to operate with impunity. Media criticism and political dissent are stifled ruthlessly.
His popularity with the party’s base and rapid rise in the hierarchy are seen as signs of an experiment with an even more audacious, majoritarian transformation of Indian politics. Inspired by his “success,” chief ministers in other BJP-ruled states have been trying to emulate his unabashed authoritarian-sectarian model of governance. To lose UP is to lose that momentum.
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The farmers understand Modi’s UP pressure point. On Monday, just days after Modi’s announcement, they convened yet another massive rally in the state capital Lucknow, pressing their new demands, which also include compensation for the deaths and withdrawal of cases against protesters. Modi has to calm them. If he can do that, he can go back to the business of what he is really good at—seizing the narrative and winning elections.
It won’t be easy this time, though. Memories are still fresh of the death and distress unleashed by COVID-19, which saw the collapse of UP’s pathetic public healthcare system. Recent elections in other states show that the BJP is also losing some of its most powerfulholds.
However, opposition parties remain in chaos and don’t have the fighting power that farmers showed. Some more creative polarizing might be necessary to keep the Hindu voter base. Attacks on Muslims have increased. There are increasing numbers of Muslims being intimidated and held hostage. Hindu supremacists openly advocate genocide in public meetings. There is an explosion of disinformation on social media and more bizarre conspiracy theories that demonize Muslims. Adityanath has been warning the “Taliban”—a slur, like “jihadi” and “Pakistani,” used to refer to Indian Muslims—that the “airstrike is ready” if they move on India.
In the past, manufactured outrages such as these were successful. For them to succeed, however, it is necessary to first address legitimate outrage. That’s what Modi is hoping to do with his faux apology and offer to repeal the farm laws, leaving himself just enough time to sow and reap a new harvest of hate and votes.