A logical question to ask after the three farm laws were repealed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “what makes him bend?” In a time more amenable to constitutional propriety, the question to ponder over would have been “what makes a strong government come to its knees?” But, India loves personalised politics, and now is the prime age of the celebration of the political cult.
In keeping with cult-based politics, Modi prefers to make major policy decisions look like his personal choices rather than the outcome of carefully deliberated discussions within the constitutional structures of the executive and the legislature. The projected strength of a demagogue travels through customised campaigns across communication channels to reach political audiences, which Modi has mastered well.
An instinctive corollary to the cult of a successfully projected strong leader will be to find an equally charismatic personality in the political opposition who can match the strong incumbent move by move. Rahul Gandhi’s political branding seems to respond to this corollary, and, by all accounts, he falls short of Modi in controlling the political message in a communally surcharged polity.
What makes Modi bend then as he has done on the issue of the contentious farm laws? The answer to this question lies not in the personality cult theory but in the political currents that dominate Indian society today. The last three successful agitations that have upset the apple cart of the political establishment have common characteristics even when their appeal cuts across the ideological spectrum. The first of these was the Anna movement, whose two direct beneficiaries in Modi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal are going strong. Its leadership team had many people who later joined the Bharatiya Janata Party or seem aligned with it. Now it is well known that this movement was backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) even when it incorporated other independent social actors. It is unlikely that the pro-RSS members of its leadership fully controlled the movement, but the mobilisation strategies of the movement used the RSS symbolism of Hindu nationalism. Its leadership unequivocally supported the parallel mobilisation carried out by Ramdev, who never shies away from celebrating the Hindu cause.
The second such movement that brought the government of the day to its heel was the agitation around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizen (Amendment) Act (CAA). One could call this the biggest successful mobilisation of people against a policy of the Modi government, though earlier the demonetisation and Gandhi’s criticism of the government’s bill on land reforms had made Modi uncomfortable.
Anti-farm-laws protest and the anti-CAA protests both brought people on the road in big numbers, something that has not happened in the Modi government on any other issue. In both cases, the symbolism and leadership of the movements have had religious characteristics.
Pedantic observers may argue that the CAA is still legally valid, as there is no official proclamation for its repeal. However, by all accounts, the anti-CAA protest succeeded magnificently in putting the government on the back foot to the extent that there is no perceptible official move to implement its offshoots, like a countrywide population register, now.
Like the Anna movement, the NRC-CAA protests also had disparate groups participating in it. After its initial mobilisation in secular spaces, like Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, the protests moved to Muslim neighbourhoods, most notably Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. With this shift also emerged a new leadership of the protest movement from the Muslim community, which can rightfully claim the success of the movement.
The agitation against farm laws followed the same pattern of community-centric mass mobilisation even when other diverse elements joined it at different points in time. The most visible symbols of anti-farm-laws protest are Sikhs of different hues, which also made them a target for a certain section of the media, just as the shifting of protest sites to Muslim neighbourhoods had done.
The success of these agitations—and the near absence of class- and caste-based mobilisations of the scale of these movements—explains the current reality of India that the real opposition to a strong government that controls almost all major power structures lies in religious communitarian mobilisation.
Indian polity has steadily moved to the right over the years, where the legitimacy of religious mobilisation has become its dominant theme irrespective of which community is leading the charge. Among the urban Indian liberals, the distinction between good politics and bad politics now lies not in the religiosity of political action but only in the rabid display of communalism.
Modi is a direct beneficiary of this new Indian reality since his rise to the centre stage and concentration of power in his hands are both informed by right-wing politics. But, this is an old argument. His most recent capitulation to farmers has further consolidated the trend that non-secularisation of the agitational space in Indian politics is what puts him on the mat and makes him retreat.
Where does this leave Gandhi who is trying to create a centre-left party in the image of his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru? The Congress that he inherited from his mother Sonia Gandhi itself dabbled with centre-right politics and had lost its ability to mount agitations of the scale of anti-NRC-CAA or anti-farm-laws protests. Effectively recasting the grand old party is an arduous task, whose success itself will be built on the secularisation of spaces of political protests. Till then, the effective opposition to Modi’s right-wing politics is likely to lie in the centre-right religious spaces of identity politics.
Nishant is a Delhi-based independent journalist with interests in politics, economy and social movements.