Free trade in agri produce is fine on paper but will kill both rural and urban India

It was Sharad Pawar who told farmers in the 2004 elections that BJP’s policies would devastate the farm sector. A decade and a half later, his prediction is coming true

Photo Courtesy: PTI
Photo Courtesy: PTI
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Sujata Anandan

I am beginning to realise that popularity, or at least political popularity, has nothing to do with competence or intelligence. Nor can education render an essential fool a modicum of common sense.

The two examples before me are Narendra Modi and Devendra Fadnavis. Modi may be winning elections by the score but the manner in which he has driven the country to the ground is a prime example of how the number of votes he wins fails to match the amount of GDP he brings to the nation. As for Fadnavis, right from the time he was chief minister, it was obvious he took everybody including some of his own senior partymen for fools and today that very foolhardiness has rendered him virtually on the political shelf. And so he must need blame a World Bank economist and former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, for Modi's lack of competence.

Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut recently told me there was a good deal of difference between winning elections and understanding situations and needs of the people. He was speaking in the context of Sharad Pawar who, he said, may have won very few seats in the Lok Sabha but understood the state of the nation as no other leader in the country did. Pawar had been putting together a plan for the recovery of Maharashtra long before the lockdown was lifted and it is obvious since it has been partially lifted that the plans have been sound and workable. But no state can work in isolation of the Centre and if Fadnavis had been paying closer heed to even Pawar, he would not have been foolishly blaming Dr Manmohan Singh for driving the economy to the ground.

I refuse to believe that Fadnavis, a law graduate, whose best years were probably through the regimes of Rajiv Gandhi while he was at school and PV Narasimha Rao while at college, is convinced of that travesty of the truth. But what he does think is that he can continue to use the BJP's Goebbelsian techniques to repeat a lie a hundred times and hope it will soon be taken as the truth.

Dr Singh is clearly an urban-centric academic and economist possibly influenced by the World Bank, but never were an Indian government’s policies more oriented to the rural populace and economy than when he was prime minister. The loan waivers of farmers and the employment guarantee scheme come clearly to mind. But that is not to say urban citizens suffered during his regime. In fact, the Indian middle class never had it so good as when he was prime minister for ten years between 2004 and 2014.

But, of course, killing Muslims, destroying institutions and abusing political rivals, particularly the Nehru-Gandhis, has greater appeal to the masses and hence despite the utter lack of competence, the BJP continues to win elections. And despite having put money in peoples' pockets, Dr Singh loses.

But I wonder now how the BJP will fare by killing in one stroke both the rural and urban economy of the country. The three ordinances relating to farmers and their produce that has forced the Akali Dal out of the NDA and brought farmers in Punjab and Haryana on to the streets to protest has to be among the most ill-advised moves by this government.

There was always a need to allow farmers to earn more from their produce in the open markets but eliminating the Agricultural Produce Market Committees from procuring at minimum guaranteed prices and opening farming to the corporate sector is likely to harm both farmers and the traders who participate in the auctions at the APMC across market yards and mandis in the country. Indian farmers are not as aware and clued in as those in the western world and subjecting them to the exploitation of huge corporates is both foolish and reeks of crony capitalism.

While the BJP is now accusing the Congress of doublespeak on the issue, given that the latter had promised to eliminate middlemen in its 2019 manifesto, why farmers are protesting is because they fear elimination of minimum support prices and public procurement which are the cornerstones of the farm economy in the country. Yes, there are too many exploitative middlemen at the APMCs but these are smalltime compared to the giant corporates who are now likely to get into the sector and deprive farmers more than the traders do at open auctions at the APMCs.

I recall in the 1990s as the World Trade regime was being put in place, farmers in Europe had hugely protested the attempt by big multinationals to influence their respective governments and deprive them of their due earnings. I was in Paris at the time and was appalled to see the sheer waste of perfectly nice crops of cherries and potatoes let loose on the streets by farmers in protest.

Some years later farmers in Maharashtra were not only doing the same with onions but actually burning their tomato and pomegranate fields in the absence of even a break-even return on their produce. Even as recently as last week farmers in Maharashtra have told Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray that they need little more than a minimum support price in terms of government aid and could take on the traders under their own steam if the MSP was guaranteed to them.

The BJP, however, has moved from being a party of small traders and neighbourhood grocers to one of big corporates and conglomerates benefitting only a handful among them to the exclusion of all others. Years ago, in 2004, Sharad Pawar had turned the election by scorning the BJP for its inability to understand the rural economy. Every one of their leaders had an urban constituency, he had said, while every Congress or Nationalist Congress candidate had a rural constituency. "They will kill you (farmers) soon with their urban policies,"" he had told them ad nauseum.

Leaders like Modi and Fadnavis are proving Pawar right. I believe they cannot be so foolish as to destroy not just their traditional voter bases among small traders but also the food producers of this country. But if the BJP continues to win the popularity stakes, then we have only ourselves to blame.

(The author is a Mumbai based senior columnist. Views expressed are her own.)

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