Farm Laws: Winners, Losers And The Future

The long term collateral impact of the biggest sustained protest in contemporary history is yet too early to be assessed. Prime Minister Modi, whose public persona was crafted as a tough leader who never does a U-turn, has been forced to do just that by the relentless farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. They had more to lose from these laws than Modi did with a U-turn. He has repealed the laws to every one’s relief, except the arm-chair warriors around him who wanted him to stand firm against his own citizens.

What was also remarkable was the unity of the farmers’ leadership. Sikh leadership rarely remains united beyond a few months. The Punjab-Haryana leadership in association with the inspiring and formidable Rakesh Tikait of UP also managed to de-communalise the struggle despite several attempts by the Government to make it appear a Sikh separatist campaign. Astute and intelligent leadership has emerged from this movement. The one to watch.

It will remain to be seen what happens next in the talks. Will the leadership remain focussed and united? Will it successfully continue to be a one purpose campaign, keeping away opportunist politicians eying the potential vote bank?

While the immediate win is obvious, it’s the collateral impact of the protest that could be even more powerful. Struggles in the Punjab have often shaped the course of events in South Asia, sometimes the world. The cracks in the Mughal Empire were first split open in Punjab in 1710. Within 20 years the Mughal Empire began to unravel. It was the fall of the Punjab in 1847 that led to consolidation and expansion of the British Empire. It was the five year sustained protest movement in Punjab in 1920s for regaining control of Gurdwaras that started the collapse of the British Empire. The British invited the Congress in 1932 to talk about possible transfer of power. Why Congress and Gandhi dillydallied for another 15 years has not been looked at by historians. Once India became free, the rest of the British Empire fell apart like dominoes.

It was the communal violence in Punjab in 1947 that continues to dominate geo political issues in South Asia. And it was the Punjab Sikh agitation against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975 that weakened her and the Congress. It started the rise of the alternatives. It was the Sikh uprising after 1984 invasion of Golden Temple that led to final disintegration of Congress, rise of BJP and Hindutva.

The Punjab rarely gains much politically from its struggles but creates waves that quantumly precipitate other upheavals in South Asia and the world.

What will this movement precipitate? It is possible that a coherent federal Indian movement might arise as a collateral from the weakening of BJP. It is possible that the ‘small farms’ issue could become internationalised and small farmers around the world might rise against the encroaching corporate agri business. It could be the beginning of dismantling of stranglehold that global corporate sector has on power. Struggles from Punjab influence events in many ways and the consequences of this struggle remain uncharted yet.

Equal winners in the struggle were the women of India. The women of Punjab, Haryana and UP have shown a strength, resilience and daring that is an inspiration to the world. They stood shoulder to shoulder with the men and many times endured far more. They refused to go back to the villages and instead brought their children and grandchildren with them. They dared the Government and refused to bow.

It is difficult yet to predict the personal and political impact on the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. People who have met him personally often say that he is a pleasant, charming and a warm person who empathises with the concerns of others. But the BJP electoral machine had built him as an Indian Thatcher, decisive and never taking a U-turn.

Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister who destroyed the coal mines and the Unions, is famously remembered for her rhetoric, ‘You turn, the Lady is not for turning’. Yet in her reign, she did many U-turns, most infamously in the very unpopular poll tax. Similarly Modi has done a few U-turns, with the repeal of Farm Laws as the most spectacular one in full public gaze.

Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to say he lost. He bowed to democracy. He is a leader of a democracy. When he sensed that that the protestors were gaining increasing support from Indians from all corners of the country, he did the decent thing. He ignored his image makers and took a personal decision. He decided to repeal the laws. He may initially have stood his ground against the farmers, but ultimately he defied those who ‘made’ his public persona.

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The greatest losers in this have been Canada and Australia and their big Agri businesses assisted by WTO rules set by western powers. It was Canada and latterly Australia that have relentlessly been gunning at the MSP (minimum support price) for farm produce in India. Australia brought a formal complaint against India in 2019 with Canada joining the ‘arbitration board’ to decide whether India has broken World Trade Organisation rules by given 150% MSP (or MPS in WTO language) for wheat and 185% for Sugar Cane.

The Indian Government was under immense pressure to scale down MSP to a mere 110% or bring in the private sector. Both Canada and Australia were drooling when farm laws were introduced and Modi stood firm. They are of the opinion that due to miniscule profit margin under WTO rules and free market, small farmers  will stop growing wheat and other food grains thus pushing India to buy these products from Canada and Australia instead. They had the GDP obsessed IMF on board too. India is a huge potential market for the mega farms of both countries. It was no surprise that Sikh MPs in Canada maintained a studious silence on the Punjab Farm Laws.

If Modi decides to stand by Indian farmers and accepts their demand for MSP to be legislated at 150% or more, this will be a great blow for the 30-year campaign by Canada and recently by Australia to break into the Indian grain market.

With growing dissent within the WTO for its pro-western and pro-corporate orientation, this protest may spur India to lead the developing countries and force change in WTO.

Perhaps the greatest winner of the protest and the Modi U-turn is India’s otherwise dysfunctional democracy. Often appearing to be faltering and surviving in Intensive Care, India’s democracy has in fact shown itself to be adaptable and a great survivor.  Despite many hiccups, election violence, wannabe dictators, it has shown its resilience time and time again. It broke Indira’s Emergency and it has forced BJP to repeal the laws.

Whatever happens next, whether the BJP starts to lose grip of near total power or federalism emerges as the way forward, democracy will survive in India for long time to come. It will make and break leaders. It is the wider collateral impact on the world that is to be watched from this protests.

Survey of Madrassas

India’s Fall From Democracy To Electoral Autocracy

By virtue of its having a population of close to 1.37 billion and holding elections to Parliament and state assemblies every five years as required under the Constitution and on the basis of adult suffrage, India has logical claims to the status of the world’s largest democracy. Unfortunately, to popular concern, India is not faring well as a democracy in the eyes of independent global watchdogs.

These agencies use copiously collected social science data and feedback from a wide range of independent sources before they decide where a particular democracy finds itself in their indexes. The first blow for India came from Freedom House, a US based watchdog funded largely by the US Administration, which relegated the country to “partly free” status from the earlier “free” ranking.

Now a much harsher admonition for India comes from Sweden based V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute. In a major setback for liberal democracy, “the world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy,” says the V-Dem report. The country’s 23 percentage point slide on V-Dem scale since 2013 makes “it one of the most dramatic shifts (read in terms of erosion of democracy) among all countries in the world over the past ten years.”

Elaborating how democratic values got eroded in India, V-Dem says: “Autocratisation process has largely followed the typical pattern for countries in the ‘Third Wave’ over the past ten years: a gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent.”

But Pranab Bardhan, professor emeritus of economics at University of California, Berkley, says much of Indian media, particularly the TV channels are found “shamelessly” ingratiating themselves with the powers that be. What freedom of the Press can there be when media owners and journalists who matter have on their own drawn the Lakshman Rekha in a way offering comfort to the ruling party at the Centre and in states like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. What is left of free media is some news and opinion websites run by some intrepid journalists and a magazine or two.

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Bardhan is surprised that BJP has the gumption to complain that the opposition is engaged in smearing the reputation of the country across the world. “But it is now imperative to say that the way democracy is being trampled in so many ways is giving the country a bad name. Let’s take the case of harassment of Disha Ravi (climate activist). Hasn’t this invited global criticism? I will say those who describe the protesting farmers and principled journalists as anti-nationalists are a blot on our democracy,” says Bardhan.

Bardhan, a global campaigner for equality of opportunity for human development, has strong distaste for doublespeak that BJP leaders indulge in. They, according to him, will say sabka saath sabka vikas (development for all) but when it comes to act they will spew hatred for the ones not of their faith. Why Bills are not discussed any longer and Acts are steamrolled through Parliament?

Bardhan thinks the fear of courting uncomfortable questions has made Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to hold Press conferences at all. The people are instead left with ‘Man ki Baat,’ a monologue that leaves no room for questions to be asked. (To put the record straight, Modi at least once sat for a long interview with the former Hindustan Times chief editor Sanjoy Narayan.)

Incidentally, Bardhan like many other front-ranking intellectuals is a strident critic of the NDA decision on demonetisation and the Covid-19 lockdown for the indescribable sufferings of the common man, millions of migrant workers and people dependent on the unorganised sectors. Now we learn from the periodic labour survey by National Statistical Office that the urban unemployment rate in the country shot up to 20.9% in April-June 2020 coinciding with the lockdown from 9.1% in the previous quarter. But what will go unrecorded are the physical, mental and financial pains millions of migrant workers suffered because of sudden declaration of the lockdown without giving them a chance to go back to wherefrom they came by train and long distant buses.

In a recent interview with the largely circulated Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, Bardhan expressed his anguish over disintegration of the country’s federal structure. As policy decisions are getting concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office (PMO), in a novel development New Delhi is regularly trespassing into areas reserved for the states. There are too many occasions when the centre without seeking the views of states are addressing subjects concerning education, health, agriculture, law and order and labour.

The winding up of the Planning Commission where the states could place their economic demands and subsequently get relief from the government was a blow to federalism. As for revenue mobilisation, every time New Delhi would impose a cess that will be a denial to states of their rightful share. This is not the case when revenues are mobilised by way of taxes.

Drawing an analogy with Germany in the 1930s where the Communists and social democrats locked in political bickering helped in Hitler coming to power, Bardhan strongly recommends that the Left, the Congress and Trinamool Congress should not allow their past differences, often quite bitter, to come in the way to stop BJP from wresting power in West Bengal.

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Bardhan says if the Left truly believes that ‘Ram in 2021 and Bam (that is left) in 2026’ then it is indulging in self-delusion. The left apparently doesn’t want to have any kind of understanding with Trinamool since its members and supporters had suffered a lot in the hands of ruling party members in the past ten years. But he says in the past ahead of the Left Front rule, the Communists were given a hellish time by the Congress. The left, according to him, will be showing wisdom if it is found ready to bury all such hatchets to stop the BJP juggernaut. He at the same time wants the Matua and Rajbangsi communities, which are befriended by BJP, to stay clear of the party with strong Brahminical leanings.

People from different parts of the country have over centuries made Bengal their home and in the process they have made rich contribution to the local economy and culture. Many Bengalis are uncomfortable that BJP is described by incumbent Trinamool as a party of outsiders.

Bardhan has an interesting take on this: “BJP has tenuous links with Bengali culture. Since the party doesn’t have a great Bengali intellectual to boast, it is busy paying obeisance to Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath, Swami Vivekananda and Subhas Chandra Bose. But it is impossible to reconcile BJP’s Hindutva with what these great Bengali minds wrote and said.”

Bankim Chandra will not accept that the country has made any progress unless the Muslims and everyone else have a share in it. Vivekananda wanted everyone to read the Bible and the Quran along with the Gita. Subhas Chandra was secular to the core. His strong disapproval when Syama Prasad Mukherjee joined Hindu Mahasabha is well known. Finally, the world has known Tagore as a well wisher of both Hindus and Muslims and as someone desirous of their brotherhood.