The Hindu nationalist prime minister does not apologize. For years, hoping for some signs of remorse, the media kept asking Narendra Modi if he regretted the 2002 massacre of Muslims in the western state of Gujarat, when he was its most senior elected official. The closest they got was when he said – more than a decade later – that it was normal for anyone to feel bad if a puppy “came under the wheels” of a car.
So, when Modi offered an apology of sorts on November 19, promising to repeal agricultural laws that sparked an unprecedented year-long protest of farmers, he was met with delight, surprise and skepticism in equal measure. While the opposition can’t stop bragging about Modi about his face, they also warn that reviving the laws later could be a hoax. Modi said he regretted not convincing farmers of the need for laws and not the procedures themselves.
Farmers, whose protests have attracted worldwide attention, are celebrating the decline. But they did not cancel the protests until the official repeal of the three controversial agriculture laws – which were essentially an attempt to replace the government-controlled agricultural sector with the free market – and the introduction of guaranteed minimum prices for crops. That the Prime Minister did not take what he said is a sign of the level of hostility between the two sides.
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The Modi government has been trying for months to discredit the protesters as terrorists and agents of China and Pakistan, turning Delhi into a fortress to prevent them from entering the capital, and trying to use force to break up the unrest. More than 700 farmers have been killed in a sit-in on the outskirts of Delhi throughout the year, which protesters blame on Modi’s passing laws through parliament without due process, and his stubbornness in upholding them.
For a man whose followers think he is Fadi knows how to make India right, it is not easy to admit that he got something so wrong. But arrogance is the least of his problems now. Modi faces a tough political test in about three months, when several states head to the polls, and considers his guilt assault a desperate strategic retreat to win a larger war for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It certainly exposes his weakness, but the potential benefits of climbing him may far outweigh the momentary humiliation.
Threat to the BJP’s power base
Among the states heading for elections is the BJP’s power base in Uttar Pradesh, more commonly known as UP. With over 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 largest number of directly elected parliamentarians to the House of Representatives, making it the most politically important.
Farmers’ protests that have rocked the agricultural belt – stretching across western UP and the contiguous states of Punjab and Haryana – are now threatening this stronghold. The UP has voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in the past, but now appears dangerously close to spiraling out of control as farmers’ discontent mounts. It didn’t help that the son of one of Modi’s ministers faces allegations if four protesting farmers were mowed with his car.
The UP’s poor performance will shatter Modi’s image of indomitability and revitalize the opposition ahead of national elections in 2024. Hindu and Muslim farmers’ solidarity also seriously threatens the polarizing politics that are a cornerstone of the BJP’s rise to power.
Since the 1980s, UP has been the site of a national Hindu campaign against a mosque supposedly built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. The 16th century Babri Mosque was eventually demolished in 1992, during protests that helped transform the BJP from a fringe party into a national political force. The BJP’s persistent hate campaign in subsequent years deepened the religious divide in the UP, helping it to strengthen its base.
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Months before the 2014 national elections that saw Modi rise to power, BJP-triggered religious riots rocked western UP, causing dozens of Muslim deaths, rapes and mass exodus. With the collapse of the traditional unity of Hindu and Muslim farmers, the BJP, which had little presence in the region at the time, swept the local farmers’ party and won all the seats there.
The last state election, in 2017, was similarly won by polarizing voters with questionable allegations that Hindu families were forced to flee Muslim-dominated areas of western UP. That year, the party ran in elections on a promise to build a Hindu temple on the site of the destroyed mosque. Modi kept the promise, and laid the foundation for the temple last year.
The farmers’ protest represents an existential threat to the Hindu identity politics that the BJP has put to good use. Although described as reforms, protesters viewed the disputed laws as Modi’s sacrifice of ordinary farmers’ interests in favor of his capitalist friends. In recent months, the same areas of western UP that once exploded in religious riots—the electorate was believed to have been forever divided along communal lines—have seen Hindu and Muslim farmers gather together at large village meetings, even chanting each other’s religious slogans.
Modi had no choice but to cut his losses to catch up and live to fight another day. He wants them to hate each other, not him. He needs them to focus on their religious differences, not class similarities.
Modi’s dream of a Hindu stateNS
For Modi, UP is not only central to political survival but also to his larger project of reshaping the secular Republic of India as a Hindu state. UP and its current leader are key to this project.
UP is run by a Hindu monk-turned-politician who makes his own group, outright bigotry and anti-Muslim incitement, Modi look liberal. The rising star of Hindu nationalism, better known by his monastic name Yogi Adityanath, is seen as the worthy successor to Modi who will take the Hindutva project to new heights.
He does not shy away from speaking out against hatred and does not hesitate to use force to show Muslims their place in the emerging system. Hate speech and crime against Muslims have been normalized in the country under his rule. Cities, neighborhoods and landmarks with Islamic-sounding names are furiously renamed. He introduced a host of new laws against cow slaughter, religious conversions and interfaith relations that allow police and vigilante groups to act with impunity. Political opposition and media criticism are ruthlessly suppressed.
His popularity with the party base and rapid rise in the hierarchy are seen as signs of experiencing a more daring and major shift in Indian politics. Inspired by his “success”, senior ministers in other BJP-ruled countries have attempted to emulate the model of communal authoritarian rule that he has followed. A loss could result in a loss of this momentum.
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Farmers understand Modi’s pressure point. On Monday, just days after Modi’s announcement, they organized another mass rally in the state capital Lucknow, to press their new demands, which also include compensation for deaths and the withdrawal of cases against protesters. Modi needs to calm them down. If he can do that, he can get back to the work he’s really good at – seizing the narrative and winning the election.
It won’t be easy this time. Memories are still fresh of the death and distress unleashed by COVID-19, which saw the pathetic collapse of UP’s public health care system. Recent by-elections in other states also show that the BJP is losing ground in some of its strongholds.
However, the opposition parties were still in disarray and lacked the fighting power that the cultivators had shown. So, some more innovative polarization to retain the Hindu voter base may do the trick again. There has been an upsurge in attacks on Muslims and their livelihoods. Arrests and harassment of Muslims are on the increase. In public meetings, Hindu superiors now openly call for genocide. Social media is rife with disinformation and increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories that demonize Muslims. Adityanath was warning the “Taliban” – a slander, like “jihadist” and “Pakistani”, used to refer to Indian Muslims – that an “air strike is ready” if they moved on India.
Such fabricated violations have been handed over in the past. But for these to work, questions of legitimate anger must first be put to an end. That’s what Moody hopes to do with his fake apology and offer to repeal the farm laws, leaving himself enough time to sow and reap a new harvest of hate and votes.