More than any other Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi longed for international approbation. He wanted the world to chant Howdy Modi not as part of an organised publicity stunt, but spontaneously with love and reverence. Power in India was important, but just as important was admiration by the world. It was important that the world understood how a tide of popularity carried him to the top and how continuing applause by an ecstatic people is keeping him there. The expensively organised Houston triumph has faded out of memory. Today Modi is a target of attack from many quarters across the world. The world finally saw that his was a communal approach to policy making.
The current farmers’ agitation and Modi’s handling of it have invited further resentment. Not surprisingly, the marching farmers have received considerable support from many countries because of their orderly behaviour. The biggest tactical mistake made by the BJP was to describe foreign critics as Khalistanis. The fundamentalist Sikh separatist movement that sought to establish an independent nation in Punjab never gained traction in India.
By dismissing critics as Khalistanis, Modi and his backers only weakened their own position. The Government’s stance is that its policies are based on three relevant Acts passed by Parliament. This may be technically correct. But the way the Bills were passed was seen by all as questionable. When the opposition called for a counting of votes in the Rajya Sabha, the Deputy Chairman passed the law by using a voice vote. His judgment was that one side had shouted louder than the other. In any case, the Government had taken the ordinance route to “regulate” the agricultural front. Parliament is used when it is convenient to do so; when it is not, it is sidestepped.
The farmers attracted widespread support in India and abroad, primarily, for two reasons — the reasonableness of their demands and the peaceful nature of their campaign. Strangely, the Government pretended not to see any problem anywhere. This went on until Republic Day when the farmers, their ranks swelled by delegates from many states, staged a march. That was more than what the authorities could tolerate. Agents of the Government went into action eventually leading to the deployment of teargas and water cannons. The farmers still refused to give up. In a climbdown managed not to look like one, the Modi Government offered to suspend the laws for two years.
There was no mention of what would happen after two years. The Government’s argument that the new laws would give farmers more freedom convinced no one. The farmers knew that the new laws would drive prices down for their produce and that they would also be threatened by corporate takeovers. As one specialist put it: “The political side is that this Government has been very autocratic in the way in which it has pushed through big reform.” The world must be feeling sorry about what has overtaken India. It must be a new experience for Modi to feel defied and devalued.
The days are gone when he could mesmerise people with his oratory. Now, people want not big words dramatically delivered, but beneficial reforms effectively introduced. Modi could not have failed to notice the dignity with which the marching farmers conducted themselves. They politely refused food that was offered to them, preferring to cook their own in the midst of their march.
The great Amit Shah was nowhere to be seen; he probably understood that this was an arena where his games would not get anywhere. This a country where about 12,000 farmers commit suicide in a year. Debts they cannot repay, crops that fail, calculations that go wrong — there are many reasons that drive them into desperation. Such devastating facts make no impression even on those who run our Parliament. Many MPs demanded a debate on the farmers’ issues.
Such a debate in the kind of situation that has developed would have been the right thing to do. That’s what Parliament is for. But not in today’s India. The Government refused to agree to a debate, thereby exposing its own untenable position. No debate, no discussion, no explanation. What the Government does, it does. Who are the people to ask? This was not what was intended by the Constitution makers. That it has come to this juncture points to the fall of India under Narendra Modi.