In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most sustained mass mobilization by farmers in the history of post-independence India has finally forced the neoliberal, hard-right Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to back down and repeal the three farm laws that were the key cause of the protests.
In 2020, Modi’s government rammed these laws through as ordinances to avoid parliamentary discussion and scrutiny. It has now proposed setting up a new Commission to discuss agricultural reforms. The Commission will include five representatives selected by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front or SKM) — this is the umbrella body, comprising more than forty farmer organizations, that has led this year-long agitation.
How should we assess the impact of this victory? Even as we salute the heroism of the farmers who fought on despite the loss of more than seven hundred lives and applaud their remarkable determination and organizational skills, we should be realistic about the possibilities that are now opening up.
Repeal of the three laws has only prevented an already bad situation from becoming worse. These laws basically had a dual purpose. The first was to steadily reduce existing forms of government intervention and regulation.
The established framework had enabled the setting up of inadequate but at least minimum support prices (MSP) for paddy and wheat in some of the “breadbasket states,” and their assured government procurement through a public distribution system (PDS) that provides sections of the Indian poor with subsidized food grains. In the spirit of neoliberal economic thinking, these subsidies had to be greatly reduced if not eliminated along with the PDS.
The second purpose was the logical complement to the first, namely, to enable the growth of corporate contract farming and agribusinesses. Because of their much greater bargaining power vis-à-vis the huge number of competing farm households, and further abetted by their license to privately hoard food stocks, these firms could now set variable market prices for inputs and outputs that would maximize benefits to themselves and to the reduced number of big suppliers.
Such processes would squeeze the majority of Indian farmers. Small and marginal farmers with less than two hectares of land make up 85 percent of the total. Even middle peasants and a section of richer ones, whose landholdings are only slightly above the ten hectares cut-off point, would have suffered, while the wages of the rural landless, whose numbers are growing in both absolute and relative terms, would have continued to depend on farmer incomes.
It is no wonder that this struggle was quite substantially a cross-class and cross-caste one. The continuing erosion of job opportunities in agriculture means that there is increased entry of job seekers into the informal sector that already covers over 90 percent of the country’s total work force. This trend would have been exacerbated by the implementation of the three laws.
Nevertheless, the end result would not have been agricultural “de-peasantization” but rather “pauperization.” In industry, the household and the unit of production are separated, but this is not the case in agriculture. Here, other family members can pitch in to raise household incomes, whether on the family farm, on other farms, or in non-farm work.
As it is, in India, 90 million rural families draw their main income from predominantly unskilled manual work. Forty million are small and marginal farming families who through overwork and self-exploitation also draw from this other source of family income.
This means that even very poor farmers will not want to rely completely on low-paid and insecure incomes from full entry of their families into the precarious informal job market, but will rather hedge against multiple risks by retaining land and pursuing some level of farming. So what is to be done?
A Reform Agenda for Indian Farmers
We can briefly list some of the reforms that are needed. In opposition to the thrust of neoliberal agricultural policies, these reforms would mean greater government intervention, but of the right kind.
The alliance of farmer organizations, the SKM, has rightly been demanding a legal guarantee of MSP, not only for paddy and wheat but for a total of twenty-three crops. This would make it criminal for private buyers to use their power advantage to extract lower prices. The 2006 government-appointed Swaminathan Commission recommended an MSP that would be 50 percent above “comprehensive input costs” of all kinds, such as paying rent, while also including the imputed value of family labor.
Farmer bodies welcomed this recommendation, but all Indian governments since then, whether led by the Congress Party or the BJP, have ignored it. It would lead to tremendous crop diversification. This would have positive impacts on the environment as a result of crop rotation practices and greatly reduced water consumption, since production of water-guzzling rice, wheat, and sugarcane would diminish.
The second reform follows from the first. Government procurement should be expanded to include more regions and farmers as well as crops. Procurement should be local, promoting crops that are appropriate to the regional agro-ecology. Small and marginal farmers cannot afford to use private warehousing facilities: they must bring their harvest immediately to the market to sell at whatever price they can get. This is why government procurement becomes necessary.
The markets regulated by state governments should also be greatly expanded, instead of being eroded or destroyed, as the first of Modi’s farm laws sought to do. Currently, middlemen, who are money lenders-cum-traders, act as creditors, input suppliers, and output buyers through their long-established networks with farmers.
These middlemen exploit farmers through the mechanisms of debt and interest rates, but they also provide them with support that enables poorer farmers to survive from one harvest to the other. If the government broadened access to public sector banking and credit facilities that give loans at reasonable rates, this would significantly reduce the power of the middlemen.
For ecological reasons, the government should redirect its subsidies away from chemical-dependent farming to the production of organic inputs. It should also set up facilities to provide farmers with more knowledge of eco-sensitive approaches to farming, along with training programs and regular practices of monitoring and correction.
Finally, the Indian state should assist the formation of farmer cooperatives, whose composition should be designed to avoid dangerous power imbalances arising from unequal land holdings or incomes. Collective processes of decision-making over production, exchange, and investment — in agricultural processing activities, for example —would then become truly democratic and benefit all households.
Modi’s Punjab Problem
In seeking to explain Narendra Modi’s climbdown, most commentary has rightly pointed to the BJP’s concerns about the forthcoming state assembly elections in 2022. The farmers’ protests had damaged the popularity of the ruling party and Modi’s personal image, not to mention the array of Hindutva organizations that defamed the movement in one way or another.
But we must also give due weight to specific concerns about Punjab and its agitating farmers who were predominantly Sikh. Without seeking to diminish the commitment of farmers from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh (UP), who have been the main actors in this drama along with those from Punjab, it was the latter who stood out as the most intransigent opponents of Modi’s government.
This was in large part because the major left-wing farmer organizations had a presence in Punjab, with their support drawn not only from the small and marginal farmers but also from substantial sections of the Dalit landless. Punjab after all, is the state with the highest proportion of Dalits (most of whom are Sikhs) in the country.
The government’s response to the agitation over the last year seriously alienated Sikhs. This helped reinforce a stronger sense of Sikh identity, which was also deepened by the remarkable material support of the powerful Gurudwara network and the Sikh diaspora in the West for the protests.
During the 1980s, Punjab saw the emergence of a Khalistan movement calling for a separate Sikh state. This eventually faded, not merely because of government repression but also because a comfortable majority of Sikhs never supported the cause, whatever other grievance they may have had.
Right-wing Hindutva forces may have always distinguished between Sikhs, who they see as forming part of the Indian nation and the wider “Hindu approved brotherhood of religious communities,” and Muslims, who they despise as an alien element in Indian society. However, this form of paternalistic incorporation itself serves as a cultural and emotional irritant for many Sikhs. A certain political wariness has developed among them about the BJP and Hindutva more generally.
Moreover, there is also another consideration at play. Modi’s vicious crackdown on Kashmir has deeply embittered the population of that region, and his government is facing difficulties in negotiating a final settlement for autonomous status in Nagaland with the main insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland.
The situation in Nagaland has suddenly become much worse because the Indian security forces brutally gunned down thirteen Naga civilians on December 4, having mistaken them for insurgents. It would be too risky to allow another area of sustained disturbance to develop — not least because Punjab is a frontier state bordering Pakistan.
Hindutva and the Electoral System
The importance of the assembly elections in dictating Modi’s retreat points to a wider point about the character of his government. The BJP and its associated organizations do constitute a far-right force with undeniable fascist characteristics, one that is determined to hollow out the structures of Indian democracy as part of their project of establishing a permanent Hindu Rashtra (“Nation”).
However, like other such forces operating in the framework of capitalist liberal democracies, they want to preserve a functioning electoral system because this provides them with a powerful form of legitimacy for both domestic and external purposes. India’s majoritarian, first-past-the-post voting procedures make it easier for the BJP to achieve a parliamentary majority on its own or with a few pliable allies.
Historically, parties have achieved a majority of seats in the national parliament, the Lok Sabha, since 1950 with vote shares ranging between 41 percent and 49 percent. But in 2014, the BJP won a narrow parliamentary majority with just 31 percent of the vote. Five years later, it won a decisive majority of parliamentary seats — almost six times as many as Congress, the second-largest party — with 37 percent.
The BJP’s dominance in the “Hindi heartland” states across the northern, central, and western parts of India gave rise to this electoral anomaly. Three of the seven states that will have assembly elections in 2022 belong to this heartland region. This includes Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s biggest state, which would have the world’s fifth-largest population if it was a country in its own right.
UP is the jewel in Hindutva’s national electoral crown. The BJP’s performance there will indicate its prospects in the 2024 national election. The participation of farmers in the western part of UP has clearly damaged the party. By retreating over the farm laws, the BJP hopes to recover this lost ground.
Modi’s party is also hoping to neutralize the anger of this section of the farmers’ movement and eventually win over its leadership. The main leader of this section is Rakesh Tikait, whose importance the mainstream media has played up, having basically toed the government line throughout the protests. Tikait is not hostile in principle to Hindutva or the BJP, and has allied with the party in the past.
How much of a lasting impact will this great struggle have on Modi’s government and the Hindutva right? Despite the huge numbers involved, there is no party opposed to the BJP that can cash in on this struggle to dramatically increase its own popularity. The movement wisely segregated itself from the established opposition parties, not allowing their leaders to speak on its official platforms.
In principle, those parties should have tried to forge some degree of unity, based on a common program that detailed a range of anti-corporate reforms in agriculture as well as other economic sectors. However, they are united only by their opposition to the BJP. When it comes to the 2024 elections, it is unlikely that any stable coalition can emerge at the national level to challenge Modi’s party.
The Indian National Congress is the only party with a more than regional presence. Even so, the once-dominant party only rules on its own in three out of India’s twenty-nine states. It will not be accepted as the hub around which the others should organize. The Trinamul Congress routed the BJP in the recent West Bengal contest. It wants to expand its electoral and political footprint by poaching state-legislature MPs from Congress and will compete against it in the coming assembly elections.
The main problem, however, is that none of the opposition parties are seriously committed to reversing India’s neoliberal turn since the early 1990s. They can only hope that the economic tribulations suffered by large sections of the Indian public will push voters toward them.
Within the Hindi heartland, a public “common sense” that has been substantially shaped by Hindutva ideological claims and motifs unfortunately reigns. With the exception of India’s mainstream left, which is now in serious decline, the rest of the opposition parties have all accepted to some degree that there is a dominant “Hindu community” which must be wooed as such. On foreign policy, the opposition parties simply echo the belligerent nationalism of Modi’s government, or even accuse it of being too soft on Pakistan and China.
In most of India’s south and east, regional parties are dominant. They could form part of a coalition that might come to power at the national level, displacing the BJP. But some of those parties might also prefer to join a BJP-led coalition if Modi’s party is not confident of winning a majority on its own.
The most important lesson of the farmers’ struggle is not to be found on the terrain of electoral wheeling and dealing. We must see whether this extraordinary struggle can inspire other forms of mass mobilization against the many injustices that permeate Indian society. The movement has raised our hopes for this outcome to a higher level, and for that we can certainly be grateful!