'Suit-boot sarkar' repeat could sharpen BJP's Hindutva turn in UP

Watching how the Modi government and BJP cut their losses from now on in the Hindi heartland would be interesting
Last Updated 19 November 2021, 07:35 IST

For the Narendra Modi government, the decision to withdraw central farm laws is a repeat of its "suit-boot ki sarkar" moment of 2015.

That decision six years ago triggered by the fear of losing elections in the Hindi heartland convinced the Modi government to jettison the reformist agenda of its 2014 Lok Sabha campaign and embrace social welfare as the leitmotif of its governance.

In the aftermath of its 2015 surrender on the contentious land bill, the Centre could afford to loosen its purse strings on social welfare schemes as international oil prices were at record lows at the time and its revenues healthy. At a public rally for the 2015 Delhi Assembly polls, the PM even attributed the low oil prices to his good fortune.

Cut to 2021. The Modi government has capitulated on the farm laws. The decision has all to do with the BJP's reading that it faces brutal Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and could get wiped out in Punjab. The message from the recent bypoll results was that it could find retaining its government in Himachal Pradesh, which is due for re-election in 2022, challenging.

Watching how the Modi government and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cut their losses from now on in the Hindi heartland would be interesting. For, the situation is in stark contrast to 2015. The oil prices are high, and the price rise is hurting people. The government is looking at monetising its assets to find the money for its social welfare schemes.

The recent bypoll results reminded the BJP of the electoral impact of the farm agitation in northern India. The Lakhimpur Kheri incident has spread the word on farm laws, the pitfalls of an open market, and the importance of the minimum support price (MSP). Farm leaders have said they will continue their agitation to demand a countrywide law on MSP, and if passed, it would put additional strain on the government.

Its surrender on the land bill six years back and now on farm laws has exposed the Modi government's Achilles heel. For all its proclaimed electoral support, under the banner of Hindutva, among the intermediate castes that comprise India's farming communities, the BJP has found itself unable to convince them of its proposed reforms in the agricultural sector.

For a second time in seven years, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's jibe that Modi's was a "suit-boot ki sarkar", a government of and for moneybags, to help big money, has come to haunt the Modi government. With his address to the nation and the BJP rank and filed ready to spread the word, the PM has taken a step to restore his credibility as a leader who heeds public opinion.

In the absence of new social welfare schemes and the existing ones running aground because of lack of funds, in UP and elsewhere, the Sangh Parivar's aggressive Hindutva message found price rise and anger among farmers as stumbling blocks.

The BJP would hope the scrapping of farm laws would help it reach out to farming communities, particularly the Jats of western UP. The Jats have been the key to its electoral success in western UP since the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

Interestingly, it is the second time in seven years that the BJP has discovered the limits of its Hindutva project. When it comes to their livelihoods, the country's farmers can and do come together to teach a lesson or two to the rulers.

It happened in the wake of the killing of farmers in June 2017 in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, and the subsequent farm agitation, culminating with the BJP losing the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It took the PM Kisan Nidhi scheme, Pulwama terror strike and the Balakot surgical strike for the BJP to win the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The question is whether its surrender on the farm laws signals a significant erosion in the BJP's massive vote percentages in UP that it secured in the 2017 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Would the Sangh Parivar now make a sharper Hindutva turn to consolidate its support base in western UP, where the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 had driven a wedge between the Jats and Muslims, which the anti-farm laws agitation sought to heal? What, however, is certain that Modi has staked his, and not that of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's, reputation.

(Published 19 November 2021, 07:35 IST)

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