Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting at Jerenga Pathar in the Sivasagar district of India’s Assam state on Jan. 23, 2021.
Biju Boro | AFP | Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revels in his image as a strong and decisive leader. But the premier was forced to make a stunning U-turn recently and abandoned controversial farm laws after year-long protests — a move one analyst called a “public policy failure.”
“While apologizing to the countrymen, today I want to say sincerely that perhaps there must have been some deficiency … that we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to the farmer brothers,” Modi said in a national televised address in November last year.
“I want to tell you, the entire country, that we have decided to repeal all three agricultural laws,” he announced.
India’s parliament passed those laws in September 2020 triggering months of protests, which saw tens of thousands of farmers take to the streets. The reforms would have removed state protections that have shielded India’s farmers for decades, and subject them to unfettered free-market mechanisms where competition would be high.
This was one of Modi’s biggest policy reversals since assuming power in 2014. The rare apology was a humbling moment for the prime minister, who learned there are drawbacks to his strongman approach.
“This is not Modi’s first public policy failure, though certainly it was the most public reversal,” said Akhil Bery, director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute. The political cave in on the agriculture reforms “did show that there are limitations to his power,” he told CNBC.
A hallmark of Modi’s governing style has been the use of executive power, with little public debate for “big bang” reforms or policy declarations, said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
“Yet, when we look at some of the notable attempts to use executive power in this manner, we do not find a lot of successes,” he added.
“Whether [it’s] land use changes, modifications to India’s citizenship rules or agricultural reforms, the government has been forced to either stall or reverse its proposed policies,” Sircar said. “When the government is unable to stanch protest and criticism, it dents Modi’s image and he must look to change course.”
These policy missteps couldn’t come at a worse time for the prime minister as India heads to the polls in several key states in February and March.
Local elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur will be a crucial indicator of public sentiment ahead of the 2024 general elections. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya…