RIHANNA, Greta Thunberg and Justin Trudeau drew ire from BJP loyalists when they spoke out against Narendra Modi’s treatment of Punjabi farmers protesting last week – but the Indian Prime Minister is under huge pressure.
The farmers, who are rallying against laws that would privatise their sector, have been engaged in several months of protest against the Indian government.
With their struggle – covered in Redaction Politics months ago – finally achieving some mainstream coverage, celebrities such as Rihanna have also started speaking out in support of the demonstrations.
Republic Day protests appeared to be the climax of the anger, with mass mobilisation threatening the integrity of Modi’s government.
Professor Sanjay Ruparelia of Ryerson University told Redaction Politics: “The farmers mobilization today is the most powerful India has witnessed for several decades.
“It has already forced the government to offer a concession — to not enforce the law for 18 months.
“The main unions leading the farmers insist they want the bills fully repealed. It is unlikely to bring the government down, though, which can only happen through a general election, and presumes the opposition parties offering a viable alternative that appeals to enough voters.”
So while Modi’s government, which was re-elected with a huge majority in 2019, appears safe, the demonstrations may prove to be a pivotal moment in his second term.
“It is a very significant moment politically,” Professor Ruparelia added.
“For several decades, the Shiromani Akali Dal has been a stalwart ally of the BJP vis-a-vis the Congress in Punjab.
“The SAD has joined hands in coalition governments in the state and at the Centre with the BJP.
“More widely, Modi remains a very popular figure, despite India’s poor handling of the pandemic and faltering economic record.
“Yet the farmers movement has the potential to gather wider support given the many popular grievances that have been mounting over the last few years.”
Protests are always unlikely to translate into political revolution because of the lack of effective opposition to Modi, he added. Though there has been some pushback at a local level, the likes of the Indian National Congress have been unable to assert their criticisms in an effective manner.
“They have been very slow to respond,” Professor Ruparelia said.
“What is striking about opposition to Modi over the last few years is that popular uprisings led by civic organizations and social movements, whether they be the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act or now the agricultural reforms, are the main form.
“The opposition parties are still struggling to lead due to poor political leadership and weak organizational capabilities.”
While the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have consistently insisted the protests are a domestic matter for India, there has been some movement across the Atlantic.
Kamala Harris’ niece Meena, who has a sizeable Twitter following, has been vocal about the protests, despite online intimidation.
It appears a sentiment shared in the White House, with a State Department spokesperson urging “dialogue” between the two.
This is as far as they are likely to go, however, according to Professor Ruparelia.
He said: “There may be muted calls. Some members of the incoming Biden administration have expressed concern over the security lockdown in Kashmir, general crackdown on civil liberties, and the worsening communal situation in India.
“But both the US and UK are courting India vis-a-vis China. They are likely to downplay any concerns they may have about the deterioration of democracy in India.”
Professor Sanjay Ruparelia is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, and holds the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair, made possible by a generous donation from the Jarislowsky Foundation. He was formerly assistant director of the South Asia Institute, a lecturer at Columbia University, and served as a consultant to the United Nations.
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