Farmers’ protests an indictment of Modi’s agenda of hate

Farmers’ protests an indictment of Modi’s agenda of hate

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Protests by farmers in India against a new set of laws that seek to make the supply and demand of agricultural produce more aligned with free market principles are now in their fourth month.

After successfully blocking all train and railways traffic in the Indian state of the Punjab for over two months, protests have now expanded into the seat of India’s government in New Delhi. Millions of Indian farmers are clogging up entry and exit points to the Indian capital, demanding that the new laws—which they fear will put an end to the minimum support price mechanism (MSP) that serves as a firewall for Indian food security and a stable source of income for farmers-- be revoked.

But are the farmers’ protests in India really just about farming and free market economics, or is there something more profound taking place in India?

Last week, former World Bank Chief Economist, Kaushik Basu tweeted a startling fact about the Indian economy: “India’s growth has collapsed from over +10% in 2010 to around -10% in 2020.”

The economic juggernaut that India become in the first decade of the 21st century was supposed to be a freight train, incapable of being slowed down, in part because of demography, and in part because of geography.

But what strategic communities in Western capitals found most alluring about India, more than its high rates of growth, its demographic dividend, and even its geostrategic location was its solid credentials as a democratic and secular nation in which pluralism thrived.

Few countries on the planet offered a better version of the pro-globalization, pro-free market Western liberal doctrine than the young, high growth, democratic and pluralist India of the early 2000s.

Basu’s tweet last week did not end with the statistical evidence of a change in India. It ended with a diagnosis of why that change may have happened, concluding: “There’s evidence that growth depends on not just economic policy but on trust in society. The rise of divisiveness & hate is eroding trust.”

For over six years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led India down a path of religious extremist ideology that privileges Hindu supremacist views about India, its genesis as a civilization, and its workings as a modern state. A Hindu supremacist India is not really what the free market cheerleaders that celebrated his rule of Gujarat state from 2001 to 2014 signed up for.

 If Hindu supremacist ideology is eroding trust within Indian society, market-oriented reforms that the champions of this ideology are enacting is eroding trust within the Indian economy. 

Mosharraf Zaidi

What is notable about the farmers currently protesting is the high proportion of Sikhs among them. The vast majority of the Indian state of Punjab is made up of Sikhs. Since Modi’s aggressive Hindu supremacist agenda has defined the Indian mainstream, India’s minorities have felt increasingly besieged. So at least one significant aspect of the farmers’ protests is a growing fatigue among non Hindu Indians.

If Hindu supremacist ideology is eroding trust within Indian society, market-oriented reforms that the champions of this ideology are enacting is eroding trust within the Indian economy.

Such vociferous protests against a market-oriented reform that, as Shekhar Gupta has recently explained, has already been enacted for several years in many parts of India, points not just to a slow down in the economic growth of India, or a growing fatigue with Hindu extremism.

The protests also point to a fundamental resistance to the altering of the architecture of how state and society interact. It is perhaps here that India offers the most substantial insights into how low growth and populist rhetoric may have combined to deliver vital insights about what lies beneath the surface of the resistance to the changes being sought by India’s ruling party to the Minimum Support Price mechanism.

Price floors or support prices are not uncommon in either developed or developing countries. The logic for such mechanisms is that agricultural produce is essential to a country’s overall food security. But support prices have also helped establish a different kind of security in societies like India: economic well-being, aspiration and self-confidence.

Indian farmers have benefitted from two generations of stable incomes from the MSP instrument. Despite shrinking landholdings, due to intergenerational fragmentation, farmers in the relatively well-off agricultural belt in India have gained enough economically to classify as middle class. And in countries like India and Pakistan, the agricultural middle class has a profound impact on political and social norms.

Christopher Jafferlot predicted that Modi would struggle to fulfil his promises to India’s two middle classes: the traditional urban middle class, and the “neo-middle class.”

He wrote, “On one hand, it (Modi’s government) has promised less state intervention to the middle class; on the other hand, it has assured the ‘neo-middle class’ that the state will help them more”.

The contradictions between state intervention that ostensibly protects the middle class, and a retreat of the state that enables the middle class to grow is not unique to India: the post Covid-19 global economic context will force almost every nation to wrestle with the divergence between too much and too little state intervention.

What is unique in India is that this tension will be exacerbated by the steady collapse of trust within society.

Kashmiris and Sikhs in Indian Punjab have endured the fast vanishing trust within Indian society for decades. But as the farmers’ protests take over the streets of New Delhi, and as they threaten to derail the food supply chain in the world’s second most populous nation, calls for less hatred, less division and more healing should be heeded by Indians.

The trajectory of India after all is not just one that affects India, but indeed, countries in its immediate region, and farther and further beyond.

- Mosharraf Zaidi is a columnist and policy analyst. He works for the policy think tank, Tabadlab.
Twitter: @mosharrafzaidi​

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