A tactical retreat, demands from civil society and the sad life of the “Andolanjeevis”
In a surprise gesture on the occasion of the Gurupurab, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation and announced that the government would take back the three farm reform bills passed by parliament last year. This leads to a number of obvious questions. First, why would the government do this? What did the Indian farmer get out of it? What did the opposition get out of it? What does this mean for the future of economic reform in India? And finally, now that the protesters got exactly what they wanted, why do all of their leaders have gloomy faces?
From the motivations of the government, one can speculate in at least three ways. In the words of the Prime Minister, the government has failed to convince some of the farmers of the benefits of the bill. The obvious reference is to the Punjab, which is a state with a troubled history. The other side framed the question in overtly religious terms. Khalistani elements mingled with the demonstrators quite openly, serving up a deadly cocktail of religious hatred and separatism. Protest sites outside Delhi had turned into a sort of military encampment, patrolled by fanatical religious police. In particular, the appalling public execution of Lakhbir Singh for alleged “blasphemy” in the early morning hours of October 15 demonstrated just how explosive the situation had become.
Second, this setback shows once again how politically difficult it is to carry out economic reforms in India. Would these reforms have benefited the Indian farmer? The consensus position among economists, except the most intellectually dishonest, was yes. And even for the handful of economists who oppose it, you can go back and find them championing exactly the same reforms under the patronage of a previous government.
But that matters little. Despite everything the 1991 reforms did for us, suspicion against the free market runs deep in our national psyche. We had before us the shining example of 1991, but it still didn’t matter. People are always worried about change. But the 1991 reforms improved everything. Except in the agricultural sector, which these reforms have not touched. We’ve been farming the old-fashioned way, with licenses, quotas and subsidies, for 70 years. Farmers are still suffering. Is there really another subsidy that will magically make things better for the Indian farmer? If this were the case, wouldn’t a party in power have already thought about it and obtained the votes of 50% of the population?
But socialism is a form of superstition, and you cannot dispute that. And you can’t expect a ruling party to jeopardize its political fortunes by asking such tough questions. The question of agricultural law has turned into a classic case of a vocal minority versus an ambivalent majority. A small group is very motivated and energetic in opposition, while the rest are uncertain, waiting to see if there is any benefit. The other day, many Modi supporters on social media wondered aloud if the great Ronald Reagan could have been forced into a similar retirement. Probably not, but this is not Reagan’s country. Ours is a center-left country. We don’t shy away from the word socialism, we love it. It will take a long time to change.
In order to bring about change, one has to appeal to the Indian spirit on a deep level. It is not enough to denounce the failings of the old system or to cite American or European examples. This would only give the impression that the reformers are no longer in contact with the vast majority of Indians. To understand this point, just listen to the speech of the Prime Minister, which was a real masterclass in communication. The prime minister used the term “tapasya” and admitted that he had failed. The image is that of the seeker, pure but imperfect in heart, and struggling every day. Until they stumble upon the gift of knowledge. A call woven around the Indian spirit, rendered in an idiom which is truly Bharatiya.
READ ALSO: Burning the stubble of crops: putting an end to the tyranny of the vocal minority wresting the right to breathe in Delhi
The third aspect of this descent is that the BJP refuses to risk its carefully constructed social coalition. Would the BJP have won even with some erosion of Jat votes in western Uttar Pradesh? Very probably. And the Haryana? There, the core of the BJP is that of non-Jat voters, and so it wouldn’t matter much. In any case, the Haryana elections are not scheduled until after the 2024 elections in Lok Sabha. But it is clear that this is not how the BJP thinks under Modi. This social coalition, in which the BJP emerges as the number one choice in every caste group, has been in the making for 100 years. It’s historic in nature, and BJP can’t risk it as they intend to play a long game. And in the long run, whoever remains in power will see his program implemented sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time. For now, the government has retreated tactically and will live to fight another day.
Now we come to the opposition parties. They embarrassed the government, yes. They win the day. But you have to wonder if they have a strategy for Day 2. On the big scoreboard, it still reads 300 for BJP and 50 for Congress. Does the latter have a vision that will help him reverse the score, go up to three hundred, or even a hundred? The five states with the most seats in Lok Sabha in India are Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Will this win help them get back into the game, even in one of those five states? If not, then what did they accomplish? They knew these reforms were in the best interests of farmers. These reforms were in their own manifesto. So what was the main objective of these demonstrations? Just a little relief from the bitterness of losing two successive Lok Sabha elections?
Then there is the much vaunted civil society, which celebrates a great victory. They trotted their beautiful rhetoric on human rights, social justice, gender equality and others to cover the more regressive elements that led to these protests. Environmentalists have come forward to cover up crop stubble burning and farming methods that destroy groundwater levels. Those who generally cannot stop talking about secularism were euphoric in their support for the Khalistani elements and for playing on the Sikh-Hindu divide.
How did the Punjab, with a horrific child sex ratio of 846 women per 1,000 men, become a poster child for women’s empowerment? Because the liberals sprinkled magical fairy powder there and said the women farmers were in fact leading the movement, ending all patriarchy in Punjab. We have lived until the day when so-called feminists showed their support for the Khap panchayats of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Remember this. Remember that any ideal that so-called civil society claims to believe is a lie.
And while we’re on the subject, note that this was a movement of the most powerful and landowning castes. Social groups at the bottom of the village hierarchy were totally absent from these protests, and most likely unwelcome. Yes, the rhetoric of “enlightened” civil society on issues of caste and social justice is just as empty as their attitude on everything else.
The last and most interesting part concerns the sullen faces of the “rulers” at the protest sites around Delhi. They won, didn’t they? Except they didn’t look like that on TV the other day. They seem unhappy. Unlike their infantrymen who partied with jalebis, the “leaders” do not party. They are crammed into meetings, whispering nervously to each other and addressing the media as if they are irritated and angry. Of course they are. Because they have to go back now and find something else to protest. They have to explain to their infantry why they have to stay angry. They must present new protest plans to their bosses and get them approved. Do you remember what the Prime Minister said about the “andolanjeevis”?
Abhishek Banerjee is a mathematician, columnist and author. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.