In 2015, the first Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) central government unveiled an ambitious reform to overhaul India’s land acquisition laws that would have enabled corporations easier access to land across the country. But faced with intense protests from Opposition parties, the changes were rolled back.
In 2020, the second Modi-led government unveiled equally ambitious reforms in India’s farm laws that would have made it easier for companies to buy directly from farmers, bypassing traditional middlemen and mandis. Despite protests from Opposition parties, a challenge in the Supreme Court, and months-long farmer protests at the borders of Delhi, the centre stood its ground, offering concessions, but not repeal.
Now the tide may be turning. Data from recent post-poll surveys conducted by the Lokniti-CSDS team show significant support for the protesting farmers across states that held elections recently. Disquiet about the new farm laws extends to the BJP’s supporters. At a time when the ruling party’s popularity has seen a dip, the party may find it prudent to cut its losses, and roll back the unpopular farm laws.
The sub-par performance in recent state assembly elections and the growing public anguish over governmental failures during the second wave of the ongoing pandemic have already dented the ruling party’s political capital somewhat. The results of the recent panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the party faces the next big test in less than a year’s time, have also been unfavourable for the ruling party, with rival Samajwadi Party outperforming the BJP. A 2015-like rollback of the farm laws may help limit erosion in the party’s support base in Uttar Pradesh and beyond.
Middle Class Appeal
While the farmers protesting on Delhi’s outskirts earlier this year were largely from Punjab and Haryana, the issue seems to have widespread resonance. And the appeal of the farmers’ protests is not limited just to the poor. A sizeable section of the middle class is opposed to the farm laws. This class has been throwing its weight behind the BJP in recent elections, and more importantly has an outsized influence over public policies because they are able to amplify their voices through both traditional and new media channels. On many issues, their voice ends up shaping the dominant national discourse, and the farm laws could be yet another such issue.
The CSDS classification of the middle class is based on a composite index that takes into account income levels, locality of residence, occupation, and ownership of household assets such as cars, motorcycles, refrigerators etc. In the last national post-poll survey in 2019, 35% of respondents fell within the CSDS definitions of the middle class.
The post-poll survey data shows that supporters of opposition parties are much more likely to oppose the farm laws compared to BJP’s supporters. For instance, 56% of Left voters in Kerala and 52% of the Congress-led alliance supporters in Assam oppose the farm laws. But a significant chunk of BJP voters also oppose the laws.
In Assam, the state where BJP retained power, 26% of those who voted for it believe that the new farm laws should be repealed. Among BJP voters in West Bengal, 22% support repeal of the new farm laws. Though BJP is not a dominant party in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and contested elections in alliance with other parties, the support base that does exist does not seem to want the new farm laws to be enacted.
If the party has been unable to communicate the need for these laws to party faithfuls, then it is futile to expect that it will be able to do so to the wider public.
All of this wouldn’t have mattered much if only a few people were aware of, or bothered about the farmers’ protests. The post-poll survey data in fact shows high levels of awareness about the farmers’ protests, across the four states surveyed.
Thanks to the social media outreach of those supporting the farmers’ cause, farm protests have found a high resonance across the country. Whether it be farmers or others, those living in villages or cities, very few said they were unaware of this issue.
At a time when the BJP faces multiple crises, it may well decide to have one less. The repeal of the farm laws presents precisely that opportunity to the party to defuse a crisis before it snowballs into a bigger movement. The BJP’s reformist appeal may well be dented to some extent but the political fallout would be limited, the data suggest.
Sanjay Kumar is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst.
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