NEW DELHI — Narendra Modi has dominated politics in India for seven years. With broad public support and big majorities in Parliament, the prime minister has pushed through dramatic and sometimes damaging policies. His government has fiercely advocated a Hindu-focused nationalist agenda and used increasingly heavy-handed tactics to silence critics, with little effective opposition.
On Friday, with a rare retreat, Mr. Modi suddenly doesn’t look quite as dominant.
Mr. Modi said that his government would repeal three farm laws aimed at fixing the country’s struggling agricultural sector, in a surprise concession to yearlong protests by farmers worried that the overhauls would ruin their livelihoods.
The government, he said in a televised address, “will begin the procedure at the Parliament session that begins this month. I urge the protesting farmers to return home to their families, and let’s start afresh.”
Mr. Modi timed his announcement for Guru Nanak Jayanti, a holiday celebrated by Sikhs, in a nod to India’s minority Sikh community, who make up the base of the protest.
“Today, I beg the forgiveness of my countrymen and say with a pure heart and honest mind that perhaps there was some shortcoming,” he said.
The speech stunned Indians accustomed to Mr. Modi’s usual stance as a muscular leader impervious to criticism. But it signaled that his standing has weakened amid a variety of problems, including a disastrous response to a second wave of the coronavirus and a struggling economy.
“Modi’s image as a tough, no-nonsense prime minister has suffered a huge dent,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister who quit Mr. Modi’s party in 2018.
Mr. Modi himself remains popular, according to some polls, and the disorganized opposition makes it highly unlikely he will lose power.
But in May, his Bharatiya Janata Party suffered a decisive loss in elections it had considered winnable, in the state of West Bengal. Polls show the B.J.P.’s lead in Uttar Pradesh — a state seen as a bellwether for the national vote, and which will hold elections early next year — has weakened.
Some of that weakening may be a result of the farmer protests. After more than a dozen rounds of failed negotiations, the farmers changed tactics this fall, shadowing top officials of Mr. Modi’s government as they campaigned in Uttar Pradesh and across northern India.
During one such confrontation in October, a B.J.P. convoy rammed into a group of protesting farmers, resulting in the deaths of four protesters along with four other people, including a local journalist. The son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers is among those under investigation in connection with the episode.
Since then, Akhilesh Yadav, an opposition politician and a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has held huge campaign rallies that have worried the incumbent B.J.P. leadership there.
“The B.J.P. of the rich wanted to cheat the poor and farmers with land acquisition and these black laws,” said Mr. Yadav in a tweet on Friday.
Mr. Modi’s retreat could give India’s democracy a shot in the arm, said Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University. With the opposition divided and the populist Mr. Modi enjoying broad support, his government has put pressure on political opponents and moved to squelch criticism online and in the news media, making the government less responsive.
“It shows that even if the government repeals these laws for electoral reasons, elections still work as a formal mechanism to keep governments in check,” Mr. Verniers said. “It also shows that more substantive aspects of democratic participation like civil protests can be successful.”
He added, “It’s good news for India’s battered democracy.”
Mr. Modi and the B.J.P. have faced pressure in the past, but more often than not have been able to resist it. In 2015, in his last major retreat, the government abandoned plans to overhaul agricultural land sales in the face of protests.
A year later, the government stuck to its guns after small businesses were slammed by Mr. Modi’s sudden move to scrap old paper currency. And in 2019, it stood fast despite nationwide marches against a law that provided a fast track to citizenship for foreigners from all major religious faiths in South Asia except Islam.
But the party has stumbled recently, in ways particularly painful in a country with an aspirational population and dreams of competing economically on the world stage.
The Indian economy took a huge hit after Mr. Modi put the country under a sudden national lockdown in March 2020 to fight the coronavirus. The government grew complacent after that first wave ended, leading to a devastating second wave that filled hospitals and crematories.
Mr. Modi’s government has since recovered with a strengthened vaccination program, but the outbreak left untold numbers dead and millions of households in danger of slipping out of the middle class.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Modi became increasingly vulnerable to the protesting farmers — a group that proved to be resilient and well organized.
Economists widely agree that India’s agricultural sector needs an overhaul. Its farms grow some crops in such excesses that they rot in silos or get exported, while people suffer from malnutrition elsewhere in India.
Mr. Modi’s government had argued that the new laws would bring private investment into a sector that more than 60 percent of the population still depends on for their livelihood. But the farmers, already struggling under heavy debt loads and bankruptcies, feared that reduced government regulations would leave them at the mercy of corporate giants. Their suspicions grew after the B.J.P. passed the laws quickly last year.
For more than a year, protesting farmers have camped out in tents outside New Delhi, snarling traffic. In January, while Mr. Modi watched a military parade in the city to commemorate a national holiday, farmers drove tractors through police barriers, leaving one farmer dead and others injured.
The farmers refused any compromise short of repeal. They remained in their tents through last year’s harsh winter, the summer heat and the second Covid-19 wave, which caused havoc in New Delhi. Their camp sites resembled small townships, with community kitchens, laundry facilities, and even gyms and volunteer masseuses.
Until Friday, Mr. Modi and his supporters had stood firm, labeling the farmers secessionists and pawns in the service of opposition parties, and ignorant of how the agricultural reforms would benefit them.
“The government has had to eat humble pie,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Narendra Singh Tomar, India’s agriculture minister, on Friday still defended the laws, saying Mr. Modi had a “clean intent” to revolutionize farming. “I am sad that we were not able to convince some farmers of the country about the benefits of these laws,” he said.
Protest leaders on Friday greeted Mr. Modi’s turnaround with cautious optimism, with plans to meet at the main protest site in New Delhi to discuss next steps.
Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmer leader and activist, said he was “ecstatic” after hearing the news. “Like you’ve conquered Mount Everest!” he said.
What remains unclear, Mr. Mann said, is whether the government will agree to the farmers’ other major demand: a separate law guaranteeing a minimum price for crops. Mr. Tomar said the government would form a committee to consider the matter.
For now, Mr. Mann said, farmers would continue their siege outside the borders of New Delhi until Parliament formally repealed the three laws.
“Until that day, we will be there,” he said.
In Ghazipur, another protest site on the outskirts of the capital, the celebrations were subdued. Some farmers shot off firecrackers while others distributed sweets. The community kitchens that have continuously fed protesters for more than a year served up the usual rice, bread and chickpea curry.
“There is no trust, no confidence in this government,” said Om Pal Singh Malik, a protest leader at the site in Ghazipur. “If he was honest, why doesn’t he call the Parliament meeting now as an emergency?”
Jagdeep Singh, whose father, Nakshatra Singh, 54, was among the protesters killed in Uttar Pradesh last month, said the repeal served as a testament to those who had died in the difficult conditions of a year of protests — whether from exposure to extreme temperatures, heart attacks, Covid-19 or more. According to one farm leader, some 750 protesters have died. (The government said it does not have data on this.)
“This is a win for all those farmers who laid down their lives to save hundreds of thousands of poor farmers of this country from corporate greed,” Mr. Singh said. “They must be smiling from wherever they are.”
Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.