Modi’s surrender bad omen for Indian democracy
Let me point out at the outset that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has broken my heart. I have always admired his vision and determination. But the way he has declared the withdrawal of his own visionary farm laws will only make crores of his supporters like me feel betrayed. But what is worse, it will not bring those who were agitating against his farm-laws to his side; instead of satiating, it only will make them hungrier for more concessions that will not only derail any other agricultural reforms but also kill reforms in the country’s governance as a whole that are in the pipeline, so vital for the emergence of India as a real global power in the 21st century.
Invariably I have argued that Modi is the best Prime Minister that India has had. Some of my friends have argued with me on this; for them Narasimha Rao has been the best, given the path of reforms he paved despite heading a minority government. But now, they will laugh at me because my favourite Prime Minister, despite leading a government by overwhelming majority and enjoying the total support of a silent majority, has literally succumbed to the pressure coming from a vocal minority.
In fact, I have been arguing over the last one year in these columns and elsewhere that the so-called farmers-leaders and their supporters agitating against the farm laws do not represent the farmers of India as a whole. I felt vindicated from the results of the latest by-poll results in various parts of the country.
For me the most noteworthy feature of these polls was the BJP’s performance in Ellenabad in Haryana, the nerve centre of the Jats and which has been a pocket borough of the Chautala family for ages. In the last elections (2019), Abhay Chautala had won by a margin of 12000 votes against the BJP candidate. He resigned to express solidarity with the so-called farmers’ agitation and contested again in the by-poll, caused due to his resignation. But this time his margin of victory came down to about 6000. The BJP got nearly 60000 votes. The rebel BJP candidate (he had contested last time on a BJP ticket against Chautala) fought this time on a Congress ticket and has lost security deposit. The lesson, thus, was that BJP bagged 60000 votes and reduced the victory margin. It was really remarkable, given the perceptions that the so-called farmer leaders represent all the farmers in the state and that the BJP would not be able to get even 1000 votes. This myth was literally exploded.
I have always felt that the so-called farmers’ agitation will never alter the outcome of the results in Uttar Pradesh. And after the repeal of the contentious laws, I do not think the BJP would gain significantly in Punjab. So, who are the people the Prime Minister has helped by repealing his own visionary laws? I do not have an answer.
The agitators are not withdrawing their stir until and unless the government gives a statutory guarantee of the MSP, a disastrous concept for India’s economy. I will not be surprised if now they demand statutory free bank loans, free electricity, free fertilisers and so on, without realising that in the process Punjab and Haryana will be converted to a literal desert sooner rather than later.
Nobody disputes the fact that nearly 70 percent of the population of India is engaged in agricultural and allied activities. Those holding less than one hectare of land constitute 62 percent of the population while the remaining with 1-2 hectares make up for another 19 percent. Then there are the landless farmers. Actually, the truth is even harsher — most of the farmers dependent on agriculture are often underemployed. This is because full-time farming doesn’t happen due to a number of variables.
Farmers have not enough land to cultivate on a big scale with their small, often tiny, holdings; majority of them are still dependent on erratic monsoonal rainfall; crop yield in the country is low in comparison to international levels. The strategy of irrigation is faulty and agricultural development is degrading land resources in the form of alkalinity, salinity and water-logging, thus badly affecting the fertility of the soil.
In a sense, poverty in India has become intrinsically linked with the over-dependence of the majority on agriculture. Their economic contribution of agriculture to the overall GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the Indian economy has been declining over years; it was 42 percent in 1951, which has come down to only 13.7 percent now.
The universal law is that the lesser the contribution of agriculture to a nation’s GDP, the more advanced it is. But then, if Indians are still poor despite the declining contribution of agriculture to the country’s GDP, it is essentially due to the dependence of half of India’s work force on agriculture. Therefore, the real problem with Indian agriculture is not its negligence, but over-dependence. But Indian politicians do not think so. For them, what matters more is votes and how to buy them. The result is that with each passing year, we hear of more demand to subsidise the farmers and waive their loans.
Here are some hard facts: In India, agricultural income is not taxed. Fertilisers and seeds are given at highly concessional rates to the farmers. So also the diesel supply to them for their water pumps and tractors. Electricity in many states is virtually free to the farmers. The government then determines the minimum prices that one has to buy products from the farmers. In case of natural calamities, such as rains and cyclones and droughts, the government distributes millions of rupees, all in the name of helping the farmers. Banks are under governmental directives to provide loans with absolutely low or no interests to the farmers; but more often than not, the governments, whether at the Centre or in the states, waive such loans.
If one adds all this, the total subsidy and other assistance provided to farmers have a staggering cost to the national economy. But what is not being realised that all these freebies mostly benefit the well-off farmers and do not reach the lower rung farmers. Of course, one could argue that farmers in the rich and industrialised countries also get huge subsidies. But the essential difference there and the farmers here in India lies in the productivity. The United States and European countries are way ahead in overall agricultural production. They produce much more than what their residents consume.
No wonder then that the world’s top 10 agriculture exporters are the United States, France, Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, Belgium and Spain. Each of them is highly industrialised, thus negating the myth that industrial development is the enemy of agricultural development. As a matter of fact, enhancing the agricultural output has nothing to do with the number of farmers. What is important is quality, not quantity. Even China, which has less cultivable land than India, has outstripped India in agriculture, even though the two countries were more or less on par on most parameters 25 years back.
Our politicians have never bothered to go to the depth of the agricultural problem. For them, the solution lies in providing more and more subsidies and free distribution of money. But the real solution, as has been proved in China, is through spending more on agricultural research, applying modern and scientific methods of cultivation, increasing the rate of irrigation, improving the water management style, and shifting emphasis from rice and wheat cultivation towards horticulture, livestock and fisheries. We have also not really encouraged the private sector to invest in agriculture.
Finally, the real problem with the Indian farmers is that there is not enough cultivable land in India to sustain the livelihood of half of the country’s population. The best way of helping the landless, unemployed, underemployed and poverty-stricken farmers is not to keep them captive to the agricultural sector but to empower them in such a way that they have options to choose non-agricultural careers — something my father realised and has worked for me and my brothers.
The moral of the story, thus, is that if you want to emancipate the farmers from poverty, then help them acquire adequate abilities or skills to look for a vocation outside agriculture. And help those who have got adequate land with new techniques, styles and expanded infrastructures so that agriculture becomes a profitable proposition.
It is against this background that I had termed the three land-laws of Modi to be visionary. But the Prime Minister has killed his own baby. Let me remind him of the story cited in 1887 by Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh. The story is about the fall of the Athenian Republic more than 2,000 years ago. Prof. Tyler had written: “A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”
In fact, it is dangerous for Indian democracy when a democratically elected Prime Minister surrenders to a vocal minority in the name of majority. He has surrendered on farm laws. Now the same vocal minority will, with the threat from a section in the judiciary, will ask him to surrender by repealing the CAA and restoring Article 370. And if Modi will do that, the days of democracy in India are literally numbered.