Farmer-politics is a self-defeating exercise in today’s India
Herein lies the crisis of farmer politicians. They have neither aspirations nor the power of coercion working for them.Updated: Jan 02, 2018 12:17 IST
Rural distress dominated discussions around the political-economy in 2017, and will likely continue to do so in 2018, much to the consternation of political incumbents. Those in opposition will be looking forward to harvesting this anger for their own benefit.
One question is worth asking though. Where is the farmer-politician in all this? Is there a debate among those who claim to represent farmers? Almost every party would like to promise farm-loan waivers, more input subsidies and higher Minimum Support Prices (MSPs). Is it the case that we have near political unanimity regarding what needs to be done to address the problems of the agrarian economy?
It is difficult to disagree with some things such as the need to create non-farm employment on a large scale and the need for putting more money in agricultural R&D. Unanimity on these first principles, however, should not mean there is no conflict of interest in the agrarian economy.
Indian farmers are a heterogeneous lot. Most of them own small patches of land. A small minority still owns large tracts of it. Most of the big landowners do not work on their own fields. They either lease out land or get hired labour to do the job. Are the interests of these two very different groups aligned with each other? Rural inequality was an important fault-line in the first few decades of India’s polity after independence.
Communist parties used the promise of land redistribution to mobilise the small peasantry and landless against the big landowners. The strategy paid political dividends in states such as West Bengal and Kerala. It generated bloody conflicts in states such as Bihar.
Communists were not the only ones who relied on the peasantry to capture political power. We also had what is often referred to as the kulak (what Russians called their big farmers) politics in India’s green revolution belt. Leaders such as Mahendra Singh Tikait were capable of bringing the national capital to a standstill to make sure that farmers received higher prices for their crops or had their electricity bills waived off.
Both small and large farmers had their relevance in the political economy.
In the traditional feudal village, the landlord used exploitation not innovation, to earn his surplus from agriculture. The sharecropper or farm labour would get very little of his produce despite putting in a lot of labour. Because he did not own enough land to make a living there was no choice but to work on the landlord’s fields. Even if he wanted to incur production-enhancing investment, there was no money for it. On the other hand, the landlord had no incentive to invest in farming. Investible funds were better suited in other businesses such as moneylending, where returns were higher and the risks much lower. Marxist economists have termed this as the basic asymmetry between capacity and inducement to investment in Indian agriculture. Communist parties promised to break this asymmetry by redistributing land. Still, overall production suffered and India had to depend on imports to meet its domestic food requirements.
Even when the green revolution technology was ready to be disseminated, there had to be some extra incentive for farmers to take up the additional risk in terms of buying high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds and fertilizers. Here came subsidised inputs and assured buying at MSPs. Already irrigated areas were chosen for these incentives. To put it crudely, the rich peasant in Punjab-Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh had to be bribed to provide food security for the country.
Both these factors have weakened considerably today. Even the poorest farm-worker in the village knows that wanting to own a part of his village land is not the best aspiration to have. He would rather work as a construction worker in a city for six months in a year than march with the communist parties or other forces to fight for land redistribution. India is now a major exporter of food and not worried about domestic food security at all. The powers that be would not be worried if a few thousand farmers decide to stop sowing HYV wheat.
Herein lies the crisis of farmer politicians. They have neither aspirations nor the power of coercion working for them. It is hardly surprising that dominant farmer castes are lending their support to agitations for reservations whose ultimate objective is to facilitate their exit from farming. Farmer-politics is a self-defeating exercise in today’s India.