Has the farmers’ blockade of Delhi brought Narendra Modi to his Thatcher moment or Anna moment? It is up to Modi to answer that question as India waits. It will write the course of India’s political economy, even electoral politics, in years to come.
For clarity, a Thatcher moment would mean when a big, audacious and risky push for reform, that threatens established structures and entrenched vested interests, brings an avalanche of opposition. That is what Margaret Thatcher faced with her radical shift to the economic Right. She locked horns with it, won, and became the Iron Lady. If she had given in under pressure, she’d just be a forgettable footnote in world history.
Anna moment is easier to understand. It is more recent. It was also located in Delhi. Unlike Thatcher who fought and crushed the unions and the British Left, Manmohan Singh and his UPA gave in to Anna Hazare, holding a special Parliament session, going down to him on their knees, implicitly owning up to all big corruption charges. Singh ceded all moral authority and political capital.
By the time Anna returned victorious for the usual rest & recreation at the Jindal fat farm in Bangalore, the Manmohan Singh government’s goose had been cooked. Anna was victorious not because he got the Lokpal Bill. Because that isn’t what he and his ‘managers’ were after. Their mission was to destroy UPA-2. They succeeded. Of course, helped along by the spinelessness as well as guilelessness of the UPA.
Modi and his counsels would do well to look at both instances with contrasting outcomes as they confront the biggest challenge in their six-and-a-half years. Don’t compare it with the anti-CAA movement. That suited the BJP politically by deepening polarisation; this one does the opposite. It’s a cruel thing to say, but you can’t politically make “Muslims” out of the Sikhs.
That “Khalistani hand” nonsense was tried, and it bombed. It was as much of a misstep as leaders of the Congress calling Anna Hazare “steeped in corruption, head to toe”. Remember that principle in marketing — nothing fails more spectacularly than an obvious lie. As this Khalistan slur was.
The anti-CAA movement involved Muslims and some Leftist intellectual groups. You could easily isolate and even physically crush them. We are merely stating a political reality. The Modi government did not even see the need to invite them for talks. With the farmers, the response has been different.
Besides, this crisis has come on top of multiple others that are defying resolution. The Chinese are not about to end their dharna in Ladakh, the virus is raging and the economy, downhill for six quarters, has been in a free fall lately. Because politically, economically, strategically and morally the space is now so limited, this becomes the Modi government’s biggest challenge.
Modi has a complaint that he is given too little credit as an economic reformer. That he has brought in the bankruptcy law, GST, PSU bank consolidation, FDI relaxations and so on, but still too many people, especially the most respected economists, do not see him as a reformer.
There is no denying that he has done some political heavy lifting with these reformist steps. But some, especially GST, have lost their way because of poor groundwork and execution. And certainly, all that the sudden demonetisation did was to break the economy’s momentum. His legacy, so far, is of slowing down and then reversing India’s growth.
Having inherited an economy where 8 per cent growth was the new normal, now RBI says it will be 8 per cent, but in the negative. It isn’t the record anybody wanted in his seventh year, with India’s per capita GDP set to fall below Bangladesh’s, according to an October IMF estimate.
The pandemic brought Modi the “don’t waste a crisis” opportunity. If Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with a minority government could use the economic crisis of 1991 to carve out a good place for themselves in India’s economic history, why couldn’t he now? That is how a bunch of audacious moves were announced in a kind of pandemic package. The farm reform laws are among the most spectacular of these. Followed by labour laws.
This is comparable now to the change Margaret Thatcher had dared to bring. She wasn’t dealing with multiple other crises like Modi now, but then she also did not have the kind of almost total sway that Modi has over national politics. Any big change causes fear and protests. But this is at a scale that concerns 60 per cent of our population, connected with farming in different ways. That he and his government could have done a better job of selling it to the farmers is a fact, but that is in the past.
The Anna movement has greater parallels, physically and visually, with the current situation. Like India Against Corruption, the farmers’ protest also positions itself in the non-political space, denying its platform to any politician. Leading lights of popular culture are speaking and singing for it. Again, there is widespread popular sympathy as farmers are seen as virtuous, and victims. Just like the activists. Its supporters are using social media just as brilliantly as Anna’s.
There are some differences too. Unlike UPA-2, this prime minister is his own master. He doesn’t need to defer to someone in another Lutyens’ bungalow. He has personal popularity enormously higher than Manmohan Singh’s, great facility with words and a record of consistently winning elections for his party.
But this farmers’ stir looks ugly for him. His politics is built so centrally on the pillar of “messaging” that pictures of salt-of-the-earth farmers with weather-beaten faces, cooking and sharing ‘langars’, offering these to all comers, then refusing government hospitality at the talks and eating their own food brought from the gurdwara while sitting on the floor, and the widespread derision of the “Khalistani” charge is just the kind of messaging he doesn’t want. In his and his party’s scheme of things, the message is the politics.
Thatcher had no such issues, and Manmohan Singh had no chips to play with. How does Modi deal with this now? The temptation to retreat will be great. You can defer, withdraw the bills, send them to the select committee, embrace the farmers and buy time. It isn’t as if the Modi-Shah BJP doesn’t know how to retreat. It did so on the equally bold land acquisition bill, reeling under the ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ punch. So, what about another ‘tactical retreat’?
It will be a disaster, and worse than Manmohan Singh’s to the Anna movement. At the heart of Modi’s political brand proposition is a ‘strong’ government. It was early days when he retreated on the land acquisition bill. The lack of a Rajya Sabha majority was an alibi. Another retreat now will shatter that ‘strongman’ image. The opposition will finally see him as fallible.
At the same time, farmers blockading the capital makes for really bad pictures. These aren’t nutcases of ‘Occupy Wall Street’. Farmers are at the heart of India. Plus, they have the time. Anybody with elementary familiarity with farming knows that once wheat and mustard, which is most of the rabi crop in the north, is planted, there isn’t that much to do until early April.
You can’t evict them as in the many Shaheen Baghs, and you can’t let them hang on. Even a part surrender will finish your authority. Because then protesters against labour reform will block the capital. That’s why how Modi answers this Thatcher or Anna moment question will determine national politics going ahead. Our wish, of course, is that he will choose Thatcher over Anna. It will be a tragedy if even Modi were to lose his nerve over his boldest reforms.