NEW DELHI — The Indian government on Friday announced it would repeal changes to the country’s agricultural sector in a rare political setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of a hotly contested state election that could determine his party’s grip on power.
Supported in principle by many economists and previously suggested by the opposition, the changes proved to be an unlikely stumbling block for Modi, who has otherwise rammed through a number of controversial measures during his seven years in office — and has rarely apologized for anything widely perceived as a policy misstep.
But on Friday, he did.
“I want to apologize to the countrymen, with a pure and true heart, that something may have fallen short,” Modi said in a televised address to the country.
He maintained that the farm laws would have liberalized the market and benefited farmers. But “we were not able to explain to some farmer brothers,” he said. “Whatever I did was for farmers. What I am doing is for the country.”
Modi’s reversal — and his tone of contrition — surprised many observers accustomed to a dominant 71-year-old leader whose brand is built on personal toughness, charisma and strident nationalism.
Modi stood firm after a 2016 move to abruptly eliminate certain denominations of paper currency proved disastrous for the world’s sixth-largest economy. He also did not publicly acknowledge any failures in the government’s response to the catastrophic pandemic wave that ravaged India this spring.
Despite large-scale nationwide protests, Modi backed a controversial law passed in 2019 that granted a pathway to citizenship for migrants of several religions, including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, but not Muslims. Earlier that year, Modi’s government unilaterally revoked the semiautonomous status of Kashmir, India’s only majority-Muslim state.
For the past year, members of Modi’s party have been on the offensive over the farm bills, accusing protesting farmers — many of whom are followers of the Sikh religion — of disloyalty and alleging that they have ties to Sikh separatist groups and Pakistan.
But Friday’s climb-down underscored the stakes of the upcoming 2022 election in Uttar Pradesh, experts say. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and an agricultural powerhouse, and it occupies more seats in Parliament than any other state. Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party holds power in the state, and losing control this spring would hurt Modi’s chances in the 2024 general election. The majority-Sikh state of Punjab, from where many of the protesting farmers hail, also goes to the polls next year.
Suhas Palshikar, a retired political scientist at Savitribai Phule Pune University, called Modi’s announcement a “political calculation.”
Modi has faced mass protests in the recent past over the citizenship law, but they were led by Muslim minorities, and “there was no direct political fallout except in civil society,” he said.
“Here you have a large section of the farmers against them,” Palshikar said. “So this ‘surrender,’ as critics will call it, will at least save the day in Uttar Pradesh.”
In his address Friday, which came just as Sikhs worldwide celebrated the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of their religion, Modi urged farmers to end their protests, and to go home and “start fresh.” He maintained that the logic of the overhaul was sound but admitted that his government had failed in its messaging. The laws will be repealed in Parliament this winter, Modi said.
Dharmendra Malik, a spokesman for Rakesh Tikait, a prominent leader of farmers and a political power broker in western Uttar Pradesh, said the farmers would not stop their protests until the laws have been formally repealed and the government apologizes for the deaths of more than 700 farmers who he said died during the protest this year.
Although many protesters say the deregulated market would benefit only Indian conglomerates seeking to enter agriculture and would hurt smallholders, some analysts and even farmers think changes of some kind are needed in a system that has long generated massive surpluses yet failed to get farmers, who make up two-thirds of India’s population, the prices they are guaranteed.
In a country that frequently experiences political demonstrations, the farmers’ protest over the past year stood out for its scale, imagery and persistence.
Tens of thousands of farmers have sat on the highways outside Delhi through a bitter winter, sustaining themselves in encampments and outlasting crackdowns by police. In the face of a government known for its mastery of public relations, the farmers waged a Twitter campaign in which they accused Modi of killing them. It infuriated the government but captured global attention, with celebrities including Rihanna tweeting support.
Calling the announcement a defeat of the government’ arrogance, Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader and head of the Congress Party, which has struggled for years to mount a challenge against the BJP, declared it a “victory against injustice.”
Saba Naqvi, the author of a contemporary history of the BJP, said Friday’s decision could mark a significant shift in how the country views the party. The BJP has often been seen as a political juggernaut that portrays its opponents as unpatriotic and brushes them aside at the voting booth and on the streets.
“The psychological cycle of fear of this regime will be broken,” Naqvi said. “The same farmers who sat down and protested for a year, who were hit with water cannons, who were beaten, who endured abuse on pro-government channels, who were described as anti-nationals, have actually won.”
Palshikar said Friday was an “extraordinary moment” in Indian politics that could reshape Modi’s “unyielding image.”
“They will have to either create a new image,” he said, “or make sure this moment is forgotten quickly.”