On Farm Laws, Modi made the rare gesture of tendering an apology Image Credit: ANI/Twitter

If there is an art to the political apology, Narendra Modi may be close to acing it. For starters, Modi is known never to apologise. In his long career as four-times Gujarat chief minister and twice prime minister of India, he is rarely, if ever, remembered for saying sorry for his government’s policies, decisions, or actions. The reason? If one is working sincerely, without fear or favour, why should one keep apologising when things don’t turn out as expected, planned, or predicted?

Rightly so. Else, in India, the demand of an apology from the PM for every little inconvenience, let alone real blunder, would be almost a career for some. “Make Modi Apologise” might well be the slogan of this brand of politics, with some key members of the opposition as its ring or cheer leaders.

And the considerable band of Modi-haters would be its sworn and signed members. Day in and day out, the Indian PM would then be expected to humble himself for wrongs real or imagined, let alone actually committed by or even remotely related to him.

Modi has consistently refused to walk down that slippery slope. Even when it came to alleged major mishaps in his career, such as the Gujarat riots of 2002. Instead, he said while campaigning to become the prime minister of the country in 2014, “If he has committed a crime, Modi should not be pardoned. What is this system of pardoning people through apology? There should be no apology. Modi should never be pardoned.”

Demo debacle

Even what some have called his “demo debacle,” referring to the sudden and swift demonetisation drive in November 2016, did not draw an apology from Modi.

Many millions of Indians were put through tremendous hardship. The move, moreover, failed to eliminate the black, not to speak of cash, economy in India. Yet Modi never said sorry to the nation. For its unintended positive side-effects, demonetisation arguably outweighs the losses.

The only other time I remember Modi apologising, with folded hands, is during the huge spike in deaths during the second coronavirus wave earlier this year. Speaking in a nationally broadcast speech, Modi said, “I apologise for taking these harsh steps that have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people. I know some of you would be angry with me also. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle.”

In the face of so much human suffering and the failure of the best efforts to stall or mitigate it, what else could India’s millennium man offer?

But when it comes to the farm laws, no one would have expected Modi’s apology, nor predicted its timing. As to the latter, there could be no better occasion that Guru Parv, the birthday of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak. Also known as Kartik Purnima or “Deva Deepavali,” the festival of light, the day is revered in Hindu and Jain traditions too.

The rumours of the compromise were, of course, rife. Capt. Amarinder Singh’s meetings with both Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah had tongues wagging of some sort of imminent patch-up. Especially after Singh bailed out of a divided Congress party, which he had helmed in Punjab as its chief minister, leading it to electoral victory four years back.

It was also speculated that there would be an electoral alliance with the BJP for next year’s election in India’s border state. But for that to happen, some face-saving formula for both Singh and BJP, which was unpopular with a section of the state on account of the farm bills, had to be in place.

India’s ongoing economic reforms

On the other hand, there is a near-consensus that farm laws are actually good for both the farmers and the country. Promised by previous governments, they were long awaited as part of India’s ongoing economic reforms. But the messaging was not right; both the rich farmer-cum-middlemen agro lobbies and ordinary farmers were not taken into confidence. The laws were seen as imposed from top by the “Dilli Sarkar,” stoking age-old memories of imperial oppression and aggression. Indian federalism also weakened with the perceived autocracy of the centre over the states.

“You can’t go against Indian farmers if you want to win elections” is a common Indian psephological nostrum. Would Modi prove the exception? Apparently not. This is one section of the populace which has survived centuries of foreign invasions, plunder, domination, and misrule.

Even if they need to be helped or uplifted, it must done in a different way. The stubbornness of the hardy Indian peasants, who braved the rains and cold to surround and barricade the capital, could not be ignored.

What is more, no sacrifice or rollback was too great given the electoral prospects in Punjab 2022. Apart from Punjab, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections next year were also a deciding factor. Too much is at stake for the BJP. Without UP, where would the BJP be?

The gain to the party and to the nation would outweigh all possible counterarguments against the withdrawal of the farm laws. Delhiites would also breathe a sigh of relief when the farmers return home, vacating the borders of the national capital region.

Politics demands deal-making and compromise. Those perceived as unbending and obdurate, let alone despotic and tyrannical, are soon shown the door. In the world’s largest democracy, the people are still supreme. They must be cajoled and persuaded, not talked down to or taken for granted.

Modi knows this all too well. That is why, in addition to the promised repeal of the agro bill, he also made the rare gesture of tendering an apology.

But the fruit of the apology, not just its art — or should I say heart — will be tested or tasted only in the ripeness of things. When a strong leader bends, it adds to, not subtracts from, his stature. Sowing seeds of political prudence, Modi hopes to reap a richer crop come harvest-time next February.

That is when both his admirers and detractors can decide whether this rare apology was an admission of defeat or a tilling and turning of the political soil for a richer yield.