Farmers’ agitation is a big challenge to Modi govt’s neoliberal agenda

What the farmers are demanding is a jettisoning of Modi govt’s neo-liberal agenda in the matter of the encroachment of monopoly capital into the sphere of petty production

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Prabhat Patnaik

The farmers’ struggle represents a major step towards undoing the dominance of the corporate-Hindutva alliance that has characterised India in the last few years. The peasants and other petty producers like craftsmen, artisans and fishermen, have been among the worst victims of neoliberalism, which has progressively removed all fetters against the spontaneous tendency of big capital to encroach upon their domains. While the attack against the workers under neoliberalism is well-known, its systemic assault on the petty production sector is less appreciated.

The dirigiste regime of the earlier period had put barriers of various kinds against any encroachment by the capitalist sector into the domain of petty production: by a policy of reserving certain items for the handloom sector; by the State interposing itself between the peasants and the “outside” world by providing minimum support and procurement prices; by the provision of a variety of subsidies; and so on.

Now, however, neoliberalism has sought an alliance with Hindutva in order to provide itself with a new prop; under this alliance, the assault on petty production has taken on an aggressive form. The Modi government has launched an open attack on the petty production sector, first by squeezing its profitability even further, then through the demonetisation of currency notes, then through the Goods and Services Tax that fell disproportionately on this sector, and now finally through the three laws on agriculture.

These laws will completely demolish the old arrangement, of minimum support and procurement prices, and the public distribution system; they would lead to a lack of production of enough foodgrains to ensure food self-sufficiency for the country (even though the self-sufficiency achieved till now has been at abysmally low levels of consumption); and they will open agriculture to encroachment by big capital.

These laws carry forward the neoliberal agenda with a vengeance. The farmers and other petty producers have thus been in the firing line of neoliberalism from the very beginning, as have been the urban workers, the attack on whom, being better known, and better understood, has brought forth a spate of actions of resistance. In the beginning, the farmers, like other sections of the oppressed people, faced this assault with patience and quietude. They committed suicide by the lakhs but did not put up any significant fight against the neoliberal assault. The three laws however have proven to be the proverbial last straw.

The struggle of the farmers, apart from its sheer scale and determination, has at least three notable features. The first is its pan-Indian character. Many earlier peasant struggles have been confined to specific areas, or specific states and have opposed specific measures, such as hikes in water charges or electricity rates or such like. But this struggle, though geographically located mainly in north India, has articulated demands that find a sympathetic response all over the country, as is evident from the simultaneous farmers’ marches in Maharashtra, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and elsewhere.

The second feature is the immense change it has brought about in the attitudes of the farmers themselves. It is a hallmark of any significant mass movement that it revolutionizes the attitudes of the participants. The fact that farmers and agricultural labourers belong to different religions and different castes, who would have been opposed to one another just a few months ago, are now struggling together against the three laws, represents a sea-change in the Indian polity.

It may be recalled that the victory of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections had become possible because of its large tally of seats from Uttar Pradesh, where the just-concluded Muzaffarnagar riots had led to a sharp communal polarisation. The contradiction between the Hindu Jats and the Muslims had been quite sharp since then; but these contradictions have now been pushed to the background as the struggle has brought them together and forged anew unity among them.

A similar change can be detected in the sympathy shown by the farmers towards those incarcerated by the BJP government under all sorts of draconian laws like the UAPA. For instance, the plight of the Bhima Koregaon arrestees that would not have been a matter of much concern among the protestors a few weeks ago, has now aroused much sympathy among them. The fact that struggle unites people is underscored by the massive and spontaneous help that the protestors have got from the neighbouring villages and from the workers in the neighbouring industrial units.

The third significant feature is that the struggle is implacably opposed to neoliberalism. Of course the demand of the struggle is the repeal of the three laws, but the laws as underscored above carry forward the neoliberal agenda; they fall in line with imperialist demands; they directly benefit a couple of corporate houses in the country who are closely integrated with international finance capital; and they contribute massively towards the attenuation of the petty production sector. All these are in keeping with the vision of neoliberalism.

Their repeal would amount to a roll-back of neoliberalism, at least in this area, and while tardiness in the introduction of neoliberalism is one thing, a roll-back of neoliberalism, even in one critical area, is quite another.

Modi’s intransigence in this matter has been attributed to his inflated ego, his overwhelming desire to maintain the myth that he knows best what is good for the farmers. This charge is no doubt true, but the maintenance of this myth is not just to assuage some psychological trait of Modi; it is an instrument for carrying forward the neoliberal agenda.

If Modi knows best what is good for everyone, and if Modi thinks the neoliberal agenda to be beneficial for all, then so it must be. Thus the myth of Modi’s omniscience, while tickling his ego, also has a functional role for neoliberalism which it would dearly wish to maintain.

What the farmers have done is to puncture this myth. And repealing the laws would not just confirm the puncturing of this myth. It would simultaneously mean a roll back of crucial neoliberal steps, which, once rolled back, cannot be reintroduced.

This is why the government is keen only to accommodate changes, to make adjustments, within the laws, but is totally opposed to any repeal of the laws. All such changes within the laws, as long as the laws remain in place, would still entail an acceptance of the neoliberal agenda. What the farmers are demanding however is a jettisoning of this agenda altogether in the matter of the encroachment of monopoly capital into the sphere of petty production.

That is why the corporate-Hindutva alliance that swears by neoliberalism is so opposed to the farmers’ demands. It finds itself in a bind as it sees its dominance getting eroded before its very eyes.

(IPA Service)

(Views expressed are personal)

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