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What Indian Opposition Gains from Farmers’ Protests

The farmers have established their moral right to protest—now the regime may prepare a majoritarian pushback.
Jaipur highway blocked

Many protests have erupted right through the six-year period of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diabolic rule, including those organised by students, against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and of the Dalits. Against each of these protests, the current regime launched aggressive counter-narratives that, for example, equated students with anti-nationals, anti-CAA protesters with “jihadis” and Dalits in Bhima-Koregaon with Maoists.

It is a difficult proposition to examine whether these counter-narratives succeeded in convincing the citizenry, but they did succeed in planting the seeds of doubt and anxiety and arresting the moral legitimacy of the protester’s claims to represent interests beyond their own immediate concerns. Now, for the first time, the farmers’ protest has turned the tables against the Modi regime. The regime has tried its same old trick in branding farmers as Khalistani, but it got little purchase before the calm and poised demands of the farmers, who do not just want the new farm laws repealed—their immediate concern—but also want to reverse the pro-corporate “development” model that is being unapologetically pursued. The anxieties we see today are more regarding the intentions of the regime than about the demands of the farmers.

The method of protest chosen by the farmers, including their expressions of concern for political prisoners, students, the rising cost of education and the general atmosphere of clamping down on protests, has added to their moral veracity. Their protest therefore looks less political and more about subsistence: it is seen to emerge from a basic need for food, which concerns all sections of society. Given the decades-long agrarian crisis in India, it also seems unlikely that farmers would have any “crypto” motives other than what they are actually demanding. Besides, farmers have more moral valency given their rural roots, compared to those who talk about high-tech machinations. A combination of these factors has exposed the real content of governance under the Modi regime.

The farmers’ slogan, “Sarkar ki asli majboori Adani, Ambani, jamakhori—Real compulsions of the government are Adani, Ambani and hoarders” appears authentic after the slogan of the Congress party, “suit-boot ki sarkar—this government is of the wealthy”, came close to capturing the popular imagination. It is because of their moral power that farmers could launch a direct, bordering on abusive, critique of Modi’s leadership and express their disregard for it.

The farmers burnt Modi’s effigy, declared him guilty of disregarding how they view the new farm laws and refused to buy his argument that the new laws are in favour of farmers. This narrative could be the key to understanding many other narratives and slogans that the current regime has put in place. One could argue that now the Modi regime has a serious legitimacy crisis and that even the opposition parties have mustered courage to join the farmers’ protest, hit the streets and declare a joint struggle against the current regime. Instead of parties giving courage to citizens, it is the citizen-farmer who is lending credibility to the opposition parties.

While the loss of legitimacy opens up space for opposition and for new narratives that a democracy requires, given the majoritarian character of the current regime, it could also pave the way to an ominous possibility—a model of governance divested of claims to either legitimacy or consent and popularity.

The current regime could now devise a model of State removed from society itself and instead of attempting to implement its agenda—as it has been doing—it may try a bottom-up approach. To include various sections, it may move towards a method that can disregard the question of maintaining legitimacy more openly and aggressively. The nature of the crisis of the current regime is much deeper and vastly different, even from the fascist Nazi regime.

Under Hitler’s leadership, the Nazis enjoyed near-complete popularity and consent of the German public. The Germans were convinced that Hitler’s response to the injury they suffered after World War I was correct. Hitler was defeated at war, but he was not politically vanquished until the very end. This was partly because the Nazi aimed to avenge an insult and not merely capture power. One has to concede, with some trepidation, that the Nazi’s were “authentic” with their agenda and enjoyed popular support as being in “sincere” pursuit of avenging the Treaty of Versailles. Much in contrast is the current regime in India, which is nihilistic and has no core commitment that one can call authentic. It has the ambition of gaining near-complete control, remaining in power for long, but lacks both popularity and the authenticity of the Nazi regime. The current regime is increasingly turning against more and more sections of society and continuing to hold on to the support it has among a tiny minority of zealots who genuinely feel a sense of historical injury and suffer from a deeply nihilistic view of life. Beyond that immediate circle, Modi does not enjoy unquestioned popularity and what he does command has been steadily declining, reaching a crescendo with the farmers’ protest.

When moral consent declines, a regime can only hold on through repressive technologies of the state that have little regard for popular consent and moral legitimacy. This clearly is an ominous possibility as an outcome of the ongoing protest. The legitimacy gained through abrogation of Article 370 and the movement to build a temple has clearly been exaggerated and the common sense of citizens was underestimated. It is unlikely that Modi would recalibrate the situation. Given the proclivities of a majoritarian ruler, he would continue to forcefully claim popularity and undermine the legitimacy of the protesters. At the heart of the matter is the model of governance through exception. When seen through a majoritarian lens, that is a legitimate way to govern.

The majoritarian model necessarily requires extra-institutional forms of governance. This model appears legitimate when it enjoys a degree of consent, but when it begins to lose consent, a majoritarian ruler cannot withdraw or step back, because doing so would only create further delegitimisation. Majoritarianism has come full circle; from cornering others into moral delegitimisation through trumped-up claims and narratives, to itself getting fixed in a similar situation. In response, it could turn from calculated chaos and targeted violence to more rampant and random violence. This is a possibility that will have to be countered through mobilisations of the kind that the farmers have taught us.

The author is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. The views are personal.

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