Modi farm laws U-turn gives divided opponents another chance to unite

Farmers celebrating at the Singhu protest site in India on Nov 19, 2021, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that he would repeal controversial farm laws. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's move to repeal farm reform laws in the face of persistent protests - his biggest policy U-turn since taking office - has handed his opponents momentum ahead of crucial state elections.

The question is whether they can finally take advantage of it.

So far, the splintered opposition has not demonstrated an ability to capitalise on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) missteps.

Those divisions were apparent last month, when a convoy allegedly carrying the son of a top official in Mr Modi's Cabinet drove into a crowd of protesting farmers in India's most-populous state of Uttar Pradesh, killing eight people in total.

Mrs Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a scion of India's once-powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a leader of the main opposition Congress party, was among the first to reach the crash site. Other Mr Modi opponents in the state, which holds a key election early next year, also raced to the scene. But instead of joining forces, they all held separate rallies.

The competing political events highlighted a key reason Mr Modi continues to dominate Indian politics: Opposition parties have failed to cooperate, effectively splitting the electorate who opposes his Hindu-dominant BJP.

Mr Baljit Singh, 30, a farmer from the state who was at the scene of last month's violence and voted for the BJP in the 2019 national election, said that he would support anyone other than Mr Modi even after he vowed to repeal the farm laws. But even he was not sure which party he would vote for.

"I am watching the various opposition parties and will give my vote to one of them, but not BJP," Mr Singh said.

Prior to Mr Modi's announcement last Friday (Nov 19), which came after year-long protests by tens of thousands of farmers, his party was on pace to pull out a win in Uttar Pradesh even while losing a significant number of seats.

The state, which has about half as many people as the entire European Union, is considered a crucial indicator of national sentiment ahead of the next general election in 2024.

The BJP won 77 per cent of seats in the 2017 state election. Mr Modi's party is trailing opinion polls in Punjab, where Sikh farmers have been instrumental in the protests. His apology for the farm laws came as the country celebrated the birth anniversary of the founder of the Sikh faith.

"It was clear that farm laws were going to be an irritation point in coming elections," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, the vice-chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University in the central Indian city of Bhopal. "He has made a virtue of a necessity."

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Opposition inertia

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was quick to respond to Mr Modi's speech, tweeting to say "those who feed the nation have peacefully defeated arrogance". The Samajwadi Party, the BJP's main rival in Uttar Pradesh, also tweeted to call the news of the roll-back a victory for farmers.

But there were no signs from any opposition parties that they would start working together against the BJP, which controls 17 out of India's 28 states and commands a single-party majority in the Lower House of Parliament. The Congress party is the lone national opposition, with the rest split between a variety of regional and caste-based political parties.

Discontent has been building among major opposition parties for a while now. Ms Mamata Banerjee, who has run West Bengal - India's fourth most-populous state - for a decade, last month blasted Congress for not taking politics "seriously".

Last month, in the eastern state of Bihar, former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav's party and Congress severed an alliance and both ran candidates in by-elections for local assembly seats, only to lose to the BJP-led ruling coalition. Afterwards, Mr Yadav said it was "high time" for all opposition parties to unite under Congress to defeat the BJP.

The farm laws present an issue with nationwide impact: Some 60 per cent of India's nearly 1.4 billion people depend on agriculture in one way or another.

In an interview with Bloomberg News on Monday, an influential farm leader said protests would continue even after Mr Modi repeals the laws as farmers seek price guarantees for all their crops.

"It was a good move by the Prime Minister but it should have been done much earlier," said Mr Balwinder Singh, a wheat and rice farmer from Punjab, who has been involved with the protests at Delhi's border. "He had no other option but to repeal the laws. We would have voted for him if he had repealed the laws without putting us in trouble in the last one year."

Even before Mr Modi decided to repeal the farm laws, the BJP in Uttar Pradesh had dismissed the opposition's attempts to capitalise on the tragedy involving the car hitting the protesters.

Mr Kaushal Kant Mishra, a party spokesman, described the visits from political leaders to the violence-hit district as "political tourism".

In his address to the nation, Mr Modi said: "I urge all my agitating farmer companions that today is the holy day of Guru Purab and therefore you should return to your homes, fields and to your families. Let's make a fresh start. Let's move forward with a fresh beginning."

One major problem for the disparate opposition parties is figuring out what they stand for apart from being against Mr Modi, according to Dr Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow at the South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Taking the fight to the BJP means a campaign that is sustained and includes affirmative elements," he said. "In other words, the opposition parties have to offer something positive by way of an alternative vision and not simply just criticise the ruling party."

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