Polls and the Politics of Appeasement

Shefali Rathi Mantry

One could argue that the farm laws, flawed as they were both in principle and implementation, had deeper political machinations ahead of the spate of Assembly elections in 2022 and the Lok Sabha poll in 2024.

Winning elections is important. Standing by sound economic principles is equally important. That is a question on which the electorate will shortly deliver a verdict.

But is it much more than that?  

Modi, who may not have not anticipated such a blowback, given the current establishment’s track record of steamrolling through policies with little opposition, has had to placate the farmers in a conciliatory speech announcing the repeal.

In that sense, many say that, in the hopes to appease an alienating community and state and bring it back on the broader spectrum, the repeal can be seen as canny election maneuvering leading up to important state elections in the country, particularly Punjab and UP where the farmers’ movement took hold.

Modi’s Dwindling ‘Strongman’ Image

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to repeal the contentious farm laws came as an unpleasant surprise to its supporters and opponents alike. What riveted them more, was the timing of the concession. Why repeal the laws now?

What pushed a ‘seemingly infallible’ Prime Minister to bow down to the farmers’ protest? One is tempted to see the move as a purely political one. 

Modi is a consummate politician, but far from infallible. By taking a step back in his reformist agenda, the politics of appeasement might just have a detrimental effect on his image, that the opposition and vested interests within the movement will no doubt play up.

Since the assembly elections in five states- Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Goa are round the corner, the move is being widely seen as appeasement on the part of the Modi-led government, as the farmer community make a sizeable vote bank in these states, notably in UP and Punjab. 

It’s Time For Elections

Although how much of an impact the repeal will have on the polls remains to be seen. Whether the politics of appeasement worked or not, the electorate will shortly deliver a verdict one way or the other.

BJP’s bleak performance in the civic polls in Punjab earlier this year, and in Assembly byelections in Haryana served as a lesson that the government needs to make amends. 

By revoking the laws, Mr. Modi anticipates regaining the confidence of the farmers in general and Sikhs in particular. However, many doubt that the move will be beneficial for the BJP.  In western UP, the party might still benefit by performing well in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election. 

This will help the BJP to contest the 2024 general election on a strong footing. Punjab, even after the repeal, will be a tough nut to crack for the BJP. 

Although the repeal shouldn’t be just seen as an electoral maneuver, but rather a larger political retrieval of Punjab. The deep mistrust and estrangement that the movement caused in Punjab is what Modi wanted to dilute, by invoking Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. 

Vote banks and the politics of appeasement in Indian politics

Loan waivers to dedicated catchment areas and decreasing fuel prices just before elections, central schemes and relief packages for states, leading up to assembly election, are many such populist examples, on the verge of appeasement.

But one particular case comes to mind when talking about appeasement, one that the BJP vehemently opposes drawing parallels with the farm laws repeal.

Rajiv Gandhi and the Shah Bano Case

Rajiv Gandhi’s flip-flop in the Shah Bano case, when Muslim hardliners forced him to reverse his earlier stance and overturn a Supreme Court judgment protecting Muslim women’s right to maintenance during talaq, is a classic example of appeasement carried out by the ruling Congress Government then.

The Muslim community and clerics were extremely angered by the judgment and saw it as an ‘attack on Islam.’

The Rajiv Gandhi government’s initial instinct was to back the Supreme Court judgement. But the steadily increasing fury of the Muslim community, especially its hardline clerics, forced the government to reverse this position and overturn the SC judgment by passing the Muslim Women (Protection on Rights of Divorce), 1988

Although it was later observed that many instances of the law did uphold the initial judgement, in a case of political pragmatism by the Gandhi government, it did not however arrest an inevitable Hindu backlash who accused Gandhi and the government of minority appeasement.

Since the Muslim hardliners had been placated by the revocation of the Shah Bano judgment, the rising BJP and affiliates saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate that the Congress was ‘pseudo-secular.’ and has since often used the case as an illustration to accuse the Congress of playing the politics of appeasement. 

The beleaguered Gandhi establishment then had to try to placate the seething Hindu resentment. Subsequently, the government ordered the locks on the gates of the Babri Masjid that had remained locked for 37 years be removed due to events that followed the Shah Bano judgement arousing  suspicion amongst other communities.

A Legacy Of Appeasement

In a bid to be favorable to both communities, Rajiv Gandhi might have set a dangerous precedent for poor politics, with or without the aim of pragmatism. It only served to alienate voters from both dispositions. When you resort to a policy of appeasement, you surrender your credibility, thereby further limiting your political options.

Repealing the farm laws and going back to the era of licenses and permits, under the APMC-Mandi system might just be seen as a case of good economics surrendering to bad politics, with a similar erosion of political capital for Modi, as for Gandhi.

It may also seem a repeat of the failure of the politics of appeasement to meet its intended objective.

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