The anti-corporate texture of farm protests
It is symbolic of a wider discontent against emerging market monopolies and fears of this being replicated in the agricultural sector
Remember the sepia-tinted Hindi films of the 1960s socialist era when the villain was often the “evil” exploitative udyogpati (industrialist)? Now, decades later, the farmer protests have recreated a familiar stereotypical “enemy” figure.
In the winter chill of the Singhu border, posters targeting “Adani-Ambani” jostle for space with those criticising Prime Minister Narendra (PM) Modi. On the ground in Punjab, Reliance Jio telecom towers have been vandalised while Adani products are being boycotted. Such has been the sustained attack on the two corporates that both the Adani and Ambani groups have been forced to issue public statements saying they have no plans to enter contract farming in the future. So why do two of India’s biggest companies find themselves in the crosshairs of what began as a confrontation between farm unions and the Modi government?
This has partly to do with the nature of opposition politics in the country at the moment. A concerted Congress-Left push to align with farm unions has seen Rahul Gandhi echo the charge that the new farm laws are designed to benefit the “Adani-Ambani” combine. The Congress leader has consistently targeted the Modi government for its alleged links with select business houses. In 2015, he raised the pitch by accusing the Modi government of being a “suit-boot ki sarkar”, a jibe that appeared to stick and embarrass the ruling party and almost force a series of policy announcements aimed at reinforcing the image of a “garibon ki sarkar”. During the 2019 election campaign, Gandhi alleged favouritism in the Rafale aircraft deal a key talking point.
Now, undeterred by electoral defeat, he appears to have returned to his pet theme, this time piggybacking on farmer anxieties. On the face of it, the Congress leadership’s attack on “Adani-Ambani” appears a tad hypocritical. It was the Congress, after all, that built patron-client relations with preferred corporate houses in the licence-permit raj era. The Ambani empire took off in the 1980s under the benevolent gaze of the Indira Gandhi-Pranab Mukherjee duo. Gautam Adani cut his entrepreneurial teeth in Gujarat when the Congress-backed Chimanbhai Patel government gave him cheap land in the early 1990s. Neighbouring Congress-ruled Maharashtra too signed infra projects with the Adanis.
But it isn’t just a shift in political alignments that explains the anti-corporate nature of the farm protests.
First, in a multimedia universe with thousands of varied platforms, it is almost impossible to “control” the storyline any longer. The government’s propaganda machine is now matched by a unique form of aggressive tech-driven citizen activism; viral videos have acquired a life of their own with lines between truth and hype totally blurred. Even the most powerful business houses are now hostage to public rage fuelled by a frenzied media ecosystem in which there are no pre-decided rules of engagement.
Second, when the battle of perception is pitched as kisan versus fat-cat industry and their political patrons, there can be only one winner. A farmer protest can be denounced and demonised only up to a point. The visual depiction of the farmer shivering in the freezing winter when contrasted with the luxurious lifestyles of India’s super-rich is enough to arouse a sense of stark inequality and injustice where emotions take over from any sense of rationality.
That the Adanis and Ambanis come from Gujarat, the PM’s home state, only serves to bolster the impression that proximity to power confers an undue advantage.
Finally, there is a reality of the exponential growth in the fortunes of a handful of India’s billionaires in the last decade even as the income levels of a vast majority of Indians remain stressed in recessionary times. In normal times, this might have been overlooked. After all, the liberalisation era has seen the Indian middle-class finally stop vilifying wealth-creation and actually celebrate entrepreneurial zeal. But in Covid-19 times, where jobs are being lost, the future is uncertain and growth is paused, there is a sense of disquiet over acutely disproportionate benefits being conferred on a few.
To that extent, the farmer protests against “Adani-Ambani”, however amorphous the sloganeering might be, are symbolic of a wider discontent against emerging market monopolies and the fears, real or imaginary, that these monopolistic tendencies will now hijack the farm trade and commodity sector too. At the heart of the conflict is an acute trust deficit, a deepening mistrust of the nexus between untrammelled State power and big business.
In 2014, Modi swept to power by promising to act against political corruption. “Na khaoonga, na khane doonga” (I won’t be bribed or allow anyone to take a bribe) became a rallying cry that served as a magnet for millions of Indians who were angry and fatigued with a scam-tainted government. Modi has managed to ensure his personal image is more or less intact, but the charge of cronyism is one which he still needs to shake off. Else the gentle winds blowing across the Singhu border will only gather more momentum.
Post-script: At the Singhu border, I met a group of young farmers who happily showed me the latest video mocking the “Adani-Ambani” bond with the government. Interestingly, I noticed they were all Jio mobile subscribers!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal