CONVINCED of his invincibility and riding an unchallenged authoritarian streak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have overplayed his hand with India’s livid farmers who staged a huge ‘tractor rally’ in the capital on Tuesday. The largely peaceful protest was planned to coincide with India’s annual Republic Day pageantry, and police had to permit some 100,000 tractors and many more people into the precincts of the protected city.

The notoriously pro-Modi TV channels, however, used stray images of scuffles between police and protesters — inevitable in any rally of this size — to project it as a violent invasion of the Indian capital. The patently middle-class claim was more a cover-up for the lethal street violence that majoritarian mobs periodically stage against helpless minorities and working classes with active support of police.

Some protesters did drive into barricaded areas, and one small group climbed the ramparts of the Mughal-era Red Fort to hoist a Sikh flag. Farmers did warn of infiltration by troublemakers into their ranks, and at one media meet they presented a masked man who ‘confessed’ to have been part of a group planning to shoot leaders and cause mayhem. Opposition parties want to investigate the group that hoisted the flag (without disturbing the national flag in the vicinity) suspecting that the men were planted to give the farmers a bad name.

However, the farmers are back to their peaceful protest outside New Delhi, with the demand to repeal the hurriedly passed farm laws that nobody other than Mr Modi’s corporate supporters wants. It is possible that an unyielding Mr Modi has painted himself into a corner in a politically crucial election year. Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are among the key states due to elect new assemblies soon.

Mr Modi was hoping to exploit a fractious opposition, but the farmers may have actually united them. It goes to the credit of the sagacious men and women heading the protests that they have given Mr Modi a truer reality to contend with, one which makes his penchant for divisive politics and narrow nationalism a less rewarding political platform. If Mr Modi decides not to heed the protests, the farmers too plan to stay resolute. The press conferences their leaders have addressed over the past two months in punishing weather outside the capital have been a celebration of democracy and a will to defend it.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2021

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