Indian politics and not just Indian democracy owes a new and historic debt of gratitude to the farmers of North India. For a year, their deep resolve finally put a desperately needed restraint on the idea that politics is only the pursuit of power. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought forgiveness of the country’s citizens as he promised to repeal the three farm laws that were announced as fiats from the highest podium of power in the land, he mentioned a term rarely used these days in politics — tapasya. The word means the work, heat and rigour of self-discipline and asceticism. The Prime Minister acknowledged there had been a lack of tapasya that had led to the ill-conceived laws that he was now withdrawing.
A well-deserved rapturous applause for the protesting farmers has been filling media waves since Modi’s withdrawal of the laws. In this heady din, critics of the government have offered primarily four explanations for Modi’s sudden retreat on his now truly aborted agrarian reforms. First, the resurrection of India’s beleaguered federalism. Whether small states or big, regardless of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being at the helm in the states, they have all undoubtedly felt the heat of insatiable desire for central control. The protest instructs that the chain of command cannot just travel one way now. Second, the special status of Punjab, the crucible of the protest. Third, the reforms were good but these were badly communicated. Fourth, and above all, every comment, from acolytes and critics of the government alike, has mentioned the looming election in Uttar Pradesh. All these aspects, though plausible and even compelling, rehearse the idea of politics as a competitive sport of power with election victories as its trophies.
Is that all there is to it?
Power of protest: Then, now and then again
Over the course of a raging pandemic and four full seasons, the farmers held their nerve and emboldened their resolve each passing day. Occupying major entry points to Delhi with Singhu border as the epicentre, theirs has been no ordinary dharna or sit-in. Unlike the earlier occupation of central Delhi a decade ago by the India Against Corruption movement under Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and others, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s face was everywhere while the spirit of satyagraha was effectively reduced to mere gimmickry, entailing image manipulation and cynical, if excessive, gesturing — from caps to staged fasts and whatnot. Today, those pictures from 2011-12 appear as cosplay for adults and senior citizens or (fake) historical re-enactments for spectators.
By contrast, in a consequential political moment and protest, Gandhi’s name has been barely named, uttered or invoked by the panoply of farmers even though theirs has been a truly Gandhian protest. The by and large peaceful occupation speaks for itself. Instead of displaying any abject desperation or even seeking any kind of bheekh (to speak after a current fashion), a newspaper and radio station punctuated the life of the protesters’ campsite that had moved its daily life rituals of cooking, feeding and education from villages to urban containers, tents and trucks. This displayed tenacity of collective resolve but also a celebration of life and a pride in its ordinary rituals.
As has been finally and widely noted, despite much provocation and even demonisation to label it as ‘anti-national’ or worse, the farmers’ protest remained exemplary in its restraint and ethical focus. It faced death of several hundred farmers and callous display of State authority, in Lakhimpur Kheri notably, and imbued it with the power of sacrifice. What can be more Gandhian or indeed supremely ethical to die but not kill?
Gandhi is back
Like with all things Gandhian, political opponents may be focussed on electoral calculations, arithmetic and counting while reducing and affixing people to ‘groups’ and castes as pitted in an endless pursuit of electoral power, but the protesting farmers have not deigned to enter that dialogue. Politics may be a series of transactions, of instrumental give and take, of push and shove to arrive at some magical altar of governmental power. In retreating, Modi’s calculation may be to lose now to gain a lot more later.
But as Gandhi showed, starting with Satyagraha in South Africa or closer home in several small and large-scale acts of civil disobedience, changing the equation through ethical acts and principles is not merely more powerful but radically transformative than any shifting of numbers can achieve.
It might be irresistible for some to enjoy the manner in which the mighty Prime Minister Modi has been ‘humbled’. But that would certainly be the antithesis of Gandhi. For the ‘Mahatma’, the true test of protest and its power was in its ability to transform and reform the most bitter of opponents and hostile of enemies. That was the power of restraint in the face of aggression and even callous indifference.
History does indeed repeat itself. It is not condemned, however, to repeat itself as a farce. An exact century ago and in 1921, Gandhi animated and led the farmers of North India for a historic coalition, which decidedly turned the tide against the British empire that was high on power after its victory in the First World War.
To be sure, Modi is astute and has realised that the spirit of Gandhi has endured and may have even been reignited by an unexpected quarter today. Modi’s invocation of tapasya — one of Gandhi’s favourite words — hints as much. Whether the farmers’ protest has reformed their opponent is an open question.
For now, massive props to the farmers for reminding and succeeding in showing that the work of politics is not the pursuit of power and political office. The farmers have reposed the power of protest to change the lot of the weak, thus dignifying the true calling of politics.
The author’s new book ‘Violent Fraternity; Indian Political Thought in the Global Age’ is now out from Penguin India. She is Associate Professor of Indian History and Global Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)