NEW DELHI -- In a major reversal, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Friday that he would repeal the controversial agriculture laws that sparked yearlong protests from tens of thousands of farmers and posed a significant challenge to his administration.
Farmers, who form one of India's most influential voting blocs, have camped out on the outskirts of the capital since November of last year to demand the withdrawal of the laws, which they feared would dramatically reduce their incomes.
Modi's surprise decision, in a televised national address, came ahead of elections early next year in key states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab that are significant agricultural producers and where his Bharatiya Janata Party is eager to shore up its support. Experts said it was too early to say if it would work.
The prime minister urged the protesters to return home, but the farmers have said they will stay put until the laws are gone -- a process that will begin in December when Parliament sits for its winter session.
"While apologizing to the nation, I want to say with a sincere and pure heart that maybe something was lacking in our efforts that we could not explain the truth to some of our farmer brothers," Modi said during the address. He added: "Let us make a fresh start."
The move represented a rare climbdown for the 71-year-old leader, who has stood firm in the face of fierce criticism over other steps his government took, such as abruptly banning high-denomination currency notes and revoking Muslim majority Kashmir's semiautonomous powers.
He also backed a citizenship law that excludes Muslim immigrants, even in the face of sometimes violent protests.
But farmers are a particularly influential voting bloc in India -- both for their sheer numbers but also because and they are often romanticized as the heart and soul of the nation. They are especially important to Modi's base and make up substantial portions of the population in some states his party rules.
"Modi projects himself as a bold, determined leader who doesn't back down. And yet he's done just that, to a farmer's movement that his government had maligned for months," said Michael Kugelman of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
Modi had long defended the laws, which were passed in September last year, as necessary to modernize India's agricultural sector. But farmers feared they would end a system under which the government guaranteed prices for certain essential crops -- first introduced in the 1960s to help shore up food reserves and prevent shortages.
While the government said it was willing to pledge the guaranteed prices would continue, the farmers wanted legislation saying such prices were their legal right. They contended that without guarantees, they would be at the mercy of the markets and that would spell disaster, especially for the more than two-thirds of them who own less than 1 hectare (2 1/2 acres) of land.
Modi's party was also criticized for refusing to extend debate on the legislation -- renewing accusations that it has too often used its majority to ram through laws without enough consultation.
Protests against the laws escalated in November last year, when farmers hunkered down on the outskirts of New Delhi, where they have camped out since, including through a harsh winter and a coronavirus surge that devastated India earlier this year.
While the protests have been largely peaceful, demonstrators in January stormed the historic Red Fort in the capital's center -- a deeply symbolic act that revealed the scale of their challenge to Modi's government. Clashes with police left one protester dead and hundreds injured.
Dozens of farmers also died by suicide or because of bad weather or COVID-19 during the demonstrations that have drawn international support from rights campaigners and celebrities, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and superstar Rihanna.
"At last, all of our hard work paid off. ... I salute the farmer brothers who were martyred in this battle," said Rakesh Tikait, a prominent farmers' leader.
At Ghazipur, one of the demonstration sites on the outskirts of New Delhi, celebrations were subdued, but some farmers distributed sweets and danced to songs.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the group of farm unions organizing the protests, said it welcomed the government's announcement but that the protests would continue until the government recommits to the system of guaranteed prices. The protesters had long rejected a government offer to suspend the laws for 18 months.
Modi's party hailed the move as a decision that prioritized farmers.
Jagat Prakash Nadda, president of the ruling BJP, said in a tweet that Modi "has again proved that he is committed to the welfare of farmers."
But Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at New Delhi's Ashoka University, said that while the announcement was very significant, the government will find it hard to convince the farmers that the repeal is more than mere political expediency.
"The government is likely to spin this as the PM listening to the people, but after a year of hard protest, acrimony and violence, it's going to be difficult to make that notion adhere," said Verniers.
The announcement came on the day of the Guru Purab festival, when Sikhs, who made up most of the protesters, celebrate their founder Guru Nanak's birthday. The laws have particularly alienated the Sikh community, which makes up the majority of the population in Punjab, one of the states with upcoming elections.
Initially, Modi's government had tried to discredit the Sikh farmers by dismissing their concerns as motivated by religious nationalism. Some leaders in Modi's party called them "Khalistanis," a reference to a movement for an independent Sikh homeland.
Such allegations backfired, further angering the farmers.
Opposition leaders, who earlier called the laws exploitative and supported the protests, congratulated the farmers.
"The country's farmers, through their resistance, made arrogance bow its head," tweeted Rahul Gandhi from India's main opposition Congress party. "Congratulations on the victory against injustice!"