Farm union leaders may have deferred their “Sansad Chalo” call on 29 November, but the issue doesn’t seem to be getting over anytime soon, despite the Modi government’s big climbdown to repeal the three contentious farm laws. For, the statements coming from these union leaders suggest that they have already shifted their goalposts and now MSP can be the next big flashpoint. “We will wait till 4 December... will announce our next action then,” said farmer leader Darshan Pal after a meeting of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha on Sunday, 28 November.
It’s hardly a surprise. For, the agitation has always been political. What’s astonishing is the way a section of liberal intelligentsia obdurately refuses to see it that way. Truth is definitely the most fragile thing today. While sanity may not be statistical, as George Orwell writes in 1984, the presence of the enlightened, liberal literati too doesn’t guarantee a less senile world either, infected as they are with “progressive doublethink”. This, to use George Packer’s words in his article in The Atlantic, “creates a more insidious unreality”, operating as it is in the name of all that is good, noble and just, without even the presence of “Thought Police”.
The term “insidious unreality” reverberates when one looks at how India is being maligned globally amid farm protests. An article in the Time magazine is a classic example. Reporting on these protests, the following keywords from the article reveal the real story: Abysmal human rights record, increasingly anti-Muslim policies, right-wing authoritarianism, authoritarian tactics, undemocratic measures, genocidal violence, ethnic cleansing of the protestors, mass atrocities, right-wing Hindu nationalism, illegal detention, et al. And if these were not bad enough, a duly elected Prime Minister of the country was at one place referred to as “The Butcher of Gujarat”, of course in inverted commas. (Thank God, for that!) One wonders if Time magazine ever understands what a true democracy is. (Maybe it’s a template of a good democracy is Kim Jong-un’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) One wonders if it would ever dare to address Emperor Xi as “The Butcher of Xinjiang”!
Interestingly, the Time’s article on farm protests does not even have a fleeting reference to the crisis India’s farm sector has been facing for decades, lakhs of farmers committing suicide, cultivation of water-guzzling crops in semi-arid areas like Punjab just to exploit the government’s MSP bonanza, excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, and of course the malaise of stubble burning. One can expect rent-a-cause activists and woke goddesses like Greta Thunberg and Rihanna to cherry-pick issues to suit their personal agenda, but for a supposedly serious magazine to report in such a whimsical manner exposes a deeper malaise. Maybe the “insidious unreality” is the reality of the global liberal order.
The real reality, however, is far removed from this. The truth is the Prime Minister repealed the three farm laws despite protests being limited to two-and-a-quarter states (Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh); other states were largely supportive of — or indifferent to — these legislations. The protests were understandable as these two-and-a-quarter states, especially Punjab, had accrued the most from the Green Revolution of the 1960s. The people opposing the new farm laws are the beneficiaries of the earlier farm policies.
Let’s look at how the old farm policies have been delivered on the ground. And whether it’s good for India, including Punjab, which produces 20 percent of the nation’s wheat and 11 percent of its rice, despite being a small state with just 1.5 percent of India’s total geographical area. What the myopic leadership of Punjab doesn’t realise — or doesn’t care to realise — is that the process of the Green Revolution’s diminishing returns has already set in. Thanks to the government’s MSP policies, which manipulated the crop pricing in the market in favour of rice and wheat, the semi-arid regions of Punjab shifted from a diversified, climate-adapted crop pattern to a predominantly water-guzzling rice-wheat combination.
This was a recipe for disaster, ecological and environmental. Lack of crop diversity has led to land desertification, which in turn has forced farmers to use more fertilisers and pesticides. Worse, water-guzzling crops have led to a water crisis in Punjab where water levels have dropped 10 metres since 1973. To compensate, again a populist, short-term measure, state politicians vie with each other to provide free or subsidised electricity for pumping groundwater.
The three farm laws may not be the panacea for all ills, but there’s no denying that Indian agriculture needed a way out of its morose socialistic status quo. For instance, one of the provisions of the new farm laws was the abolition of the APMC Act. At least 17 states have already abolished or made changes to the existing APMC Act. One of them is Bihar, a state where around 70-80 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. Bihar abolished the APMC Act in 2006. Between 2011 and 2018-19, Bihar grew at 13.3 percent while India’s growth rate was 7.5 percent.
In contrast, Punjab’s graph has gone down considerably. Between 1972 and 1985-86, the state recorded 5.7 percent agricultural growth in comparison to India’s 2.3 percent. Between 1986-87 and 2004-05, its growth came down to 3 percent to India’s 2.94 percent. And between 2005-06 and 2014-15, Punjab’s agricultural growth rate went down to 1.61 percent. Punjab farming is already in the doldrums, but those in power are deliberately looking the other way. By sticking to the old order, the leaders of Punjab are playing a dangerous game under pressure from arthiyas and rich farmers who have vested interest in the continuation of the old system. It's short-term politics for long-term pain.
Coming to Modi, climbdown has never been his style of working. Also, being in governance for over two decades now, I am sure he understands that the politics of concessions never works. Told to wear a green pagdi, he politely turned down the offer. He could have easily worn one. More so in a political culture where it is fashionable to look ‘secular’. With this one move, he could have shrugged off his pariah tag and joined the political mainstream. But Modi chose to resist the temptation. The result: In 2014, the BJP under him formed the first government at the Centre with a majority of its own — a first in over three decades.
So, why retreat this time? “It’s a tactical retreat”, say a few political analysts. Historically, a tactical retreat is something we Indians seem to have forgotten a long time ago. We forgot how Krishna used it for the sake of dharma. And Kautilya for the welfare of the state. So, it’s heartening that the current dispensation is taking recourse to it, if it intends to benefit the citizens. But Modi should ensure that it doesn’t become the order of the day. Retreats, tactical or otherwise, can easily become a habit.
To see it as an electoral move, as some political pundits are doing, would be uncharitable to the political acumen of Modi and Amit Shah. The two are past masters in electoral politics to understand that the repeal doesn’t guarantee the BJP much political leeway. Of course, it would calm some stormy waters in Punjab, but in no way would it give the BJP any notable electoral advantage. Anybody knowing the Punjabi psyche would be aware that they don’t forget and forgive too easily. But it definitely makes the Punjab elections interesting, with the 2As — Amarinder Singh and Akalis — likely to gain more footholds. As for western Uttar Pradesh, the move may end up emboldening the opponents who may see a chink on the otherwise shining BJP armour.
Those close to the BJP say the move is aimed at containing the growing alienation of the people of Punjab, with the ISI and Khalistani elements working overtime to fish into the troubled waters. The motive may be right, but the process may be questionable. One, it may tar the BJP’s image as a party of U-turns — land law, labour law, CAA and now farm laws. Two, it may embolden others to follow the farm protest toolkit to try and corner the government. Asaduddin Owaisi has already threatened the government over CAA. We may be in for a season of full-time protests. The pattern can be simple: Find an issue, organise a crowd of a lakh or two, and make another “Dilli Chalo” call!
Three, it lets down all those, including farmers in other parts of the country, who genuinely supported the government’s moves, suffered bandhs, roadblocks, and hartals for almost a year. How is the government going to tell this vast section of people that their hardships meant nothing in front of the blackmail politics of a few lakh influential protesters?
But the biggest concern is, far from containing the Khalistanis and other separatist forces, the move may embolden them further. Extremists gloat on such successes, even if make-believe. They thrive at the sight of such concessions, even if well-meaning. History of Punjab is replete with examples in the 1970s and ’80s when the two main political parties — the Congress and the Akalis — competed with each other in cuddling and mollifying Khalistani extremists for political one-upmanship. It ended up with violence of unprecedented proportions. And for the might of the state to be restored again, fire was fought with fire. And an eye for two eyes. India can’t afford to let Punjab slip again.
Among the masses, far from the usual Raisina gang that would traditionally set the narrative for the nation, Modi means credibility. When he announced the note ban, the masses stood by him despite facing unprecedented hardships. When he told them to bang utensils in their balconies to ward off a China-made virus, they did so with incredible conviction. Credibility is Modi’s biggest asset. He can’t afford to lose that. More so at a time when his adversaries may be seeing an opening in cornering him and his government. At a time when the champions of global democracy led by the likes of George Soros find ecstasy in the idea of Pakistan and work overtime to corner the world’s largest democracy.
In a post-truth, Orwellian world where two plus two can be five, where China is seen as a democracy and India an authoritarian state, and where “progressive doublethink” is a way of life, a strong, decisive government is the need of the hour in India. Any dithering may be incrementally harmful. To India, Indians and to the very idea of India.