Article by William Samir Simpson | Illustration by Niccolò Cedeno
In recent months, the Indian farmers’ protest has been covered prominently by both Indian and foreign media outlets, with at least 250 million workers taking part in a nationwide general strike as an objection to a series of controversial agriculture laws passed by the Indian government in September 2020. These laws, often referred to as the Farm Bills, aim to loosen regulations around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce – regulations that have been key in ensuring Indian farmers’ profits for decades. Given that the agricultural sector employs over half of India’s total workforce, widespread opposition to these new laws was swift; numerous major trade unions in the country have spoken out, with the notable exception of the ruling government-aligned Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
The Farm Bills have been among the latest of initiatives made by Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s government that have raised doubt on his commitment to focus on economic growth as a means to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. While he has received consistently high approval ratings, it is a matter of question as to if the fallout from these recent laws and corresponding protests will be the deciding factor in causing Indians to re-examine their perception of him.
The Rise of Modi
For the majority of India’s independent history, politics was dominated by the Indian National Congress, whose heavy state management of the economy and rampant corruption led to an economy on the verge of bankruptcy by 1991. Although significant economic liberalization was enacted soon after, widespread dissatisfaction with decades of Congress rule was evident when Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to sweeping victories in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. With a pledge to focus on economic development, Modi’s victory was seen as an opportunity for many ordinary Indians to improve their standard of living.
However, Modi and the BJP’s profiles have been complicated by their inclination towards Hindu nationalist ideals, which have been seen as discriminatory towards religious minorities in the country, particularly Muslims. Although Modi’s initial presidential campaign largely avoided religious matters in favor of prioritizing the economy, laws passed by his government, namely the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, both passed in late 2019, attracted controversy over perceived intentions to appeal to Hindu nationalist groups and exacerbate religious tensions within the country.
The economy under Modi’s tenure has also faced persistent uncertainty. A banknote demonetization effort in 2016, aimed at curbing the country’s shadow economy, resulted in cash shortages and economic disruption, subsequently attracting criticism over its implementation. Meanwhile, the Modi administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in India backfired to a degree, when the strict nationwide lockdown enacted in March 2020 led to an exodus of migrant workers leaving major cities for their home villages, which was thought to have been a contributing factor in spreading COVID-19 to India’s countryside and causing India to became the second worst affected country in the world, after the United States. The resulting economic fallout devastated the country, which despite being the world’s fastest growing major economy in 2015, had already been experiencing an economic slowdown before the pandemic hit, and now in recession, it is estimated that as many as 200 million people could slip back into poverty.
Farm Bills: The Last Straw?
Particularly given the unprecedented economic crisis India faces today, it is understandable why Indian farmers have been so intent in fighting back against the Farm Bills. In India’s agricultural sector, farmers have long relied on selling their produce at government-run wholesale markets with set floor prices, run by committees made up of other farmers who act as middlemen. With the deregulations laid out in the Farm Bills, there is a fear that farmers, especially small-scale ones, will lose this assurance and be at the mercy of large corporations and whatever price they wish to charge.
The Modi administration has taken a hardline approach in the face of the protests, refusing to back down on the implementation of these bills. Modi has argued that the bills are necessary in order to give India’s agricultural sector some long-needed reform and modernize the economy, claiming they will give greater freedom and ultimate prosperity for farmers. However, much like previous initiatives from the administration, such as the banknote demonization effort, criticism is aimed at the implementation and short-term consequences of the bills. The implementation of these bills, while giving reform to India’s agricultural sector, could allow corporations to exploit the labor of Indian farmers, driving up corporate profits at the expense of average workers who have already bared the brunt of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
With an estimated 250 million farmers on strike, the protest against the Farm Bills may be the largest in world history, and poses an unprecedented challenge for Modi’s government. Both sides have refused to back down in their aims, and authorities have resorted to various crackdown measures to quell the protests, including an alleged barricading of opposition figures supportive of the protests in their homes and the usage of tear gas and water cannons on protesters. While protests and a resulting crackdown on dissent have not been unusual during Modi’s tenure, the sheer number of this protest and the widespread discontent among half of India’s workforce, who are already struggling with an economic crisis, could prove consequential in changing Indians’ perception of Modi as a leader with the ability to improve their economic well-being.
It is likely that many Indians have viewed Modi not as the politician he is, but as the representation of change from a system that left them in stagnation for so long. This would very well explain why he has experienced such high approval ratings throughout his tenure, in spite of the controversies surrounding his Hindu nationalist leanings and continuous uncertainty around India’s economic growth. Through the ups and downs of Modi’s premiership so far, it seems that Indians continue to remain hopeful that the goals of economic progress he campaigned on will somehow manifest.
With that being said, it is peculiar as to why Modi has chosen this exact timing to pass the Farm Bills, given the delicate state of the Indian economy and the already dire predicament many farmers are in from the pandemic. Perhaps he is counting on the long-term thinking of the Indian public to wait out the results as they have been doing to this point. However, the uncertainty of how the Farm Bills will affect India’s agricultural workers looms on. And with the Indian economy facing its worst crisis in recent history, the stakes for Modi’s legacy are high.