The Eighties. Mithun da, multistarrers and multinationals. Only the last got no love. India had a prime minister hoisted upon her by fate and tragedy. Rajiv Gandhi was entrusted with steering a country out of socialist ennui of near four decades. He was unlike any other politician in that he dressed differently, spoke differently, and was not a politician by training. The commercial pilot was a novice in politics, and hence open to new ideas from people outside politics. He would talk computers and scare the hell out of socialists, and they were numerous in politics. Paranoia was a popular political tool. The word 'technology' was uttered in political rallies with derision. Top politicians believed computers would make humans jobless. The word 'multinational' was the monster and globalisation sounded ghoulish. The economic left, which included everybody worth his khadi kurta then, would invoke the East India Company and describe how they came in for trade and enslaved the people.
We have fought multinationals, economic liberalisation and today a large number of us are fighting the farm laws, with the belief that the laws will ultimately make paupers out of us poor farmers. (Photo: PTI)
The playground at my school doubled as a rally ground for political parties. We would hear firebrand leaders, local and national, and repeat their impassioned arguments against the curse called capitalism. Graffiti on the compound walls had slogans eulogising the struggle against everything foreign. Pepsi wasn't here yet, Coca Cola hadn’t returned, Socialist and Secular were inserted in the Preamble of the Constitution. Nobody needed to worry about the latter as the former was to be protected first. Rajiv Gandhi could not open the door, but he did leave some windows ajar. The light did come in, some fresh air too. But that was all. His government was replaced by a socialist coalition where the Left and the Right (but economically left BJP) cohabited. That VP Singh government collapsed under its own contradictions and a split-away socialist faction ruled the country with Rajiv Gandhi’s support, eventually leading to an election that took Rajiv Gandhi’s life and returned the Congress party to power. On the economic front, the Gulf War had sucked the oil out of its creaking economy and India was broke. Not opening up was not an option. There was a proverbial gun to the head: unlock or perish.
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh slammed open the door. In the next decade, India’s economy was transformed, and successive governments chose to continue the economic liberalisation, the fruits of which Indians have relished since. The progress was rapid. The cursed computer brought jobs, contrary to the fear. Indians from metros to mofussil joined the IT party. Manufacturing and services both took such leaps that India became an economic power to reckon with. This liberalisation lifted more people out of poverty in a decade than the socialist system did in the previous four. Prosperity was visible with the trickle-down in motion. This, finally, led to massive investment in infrastructure and while being much behind China in this, if you compare pre-2000 infrastructure with that post-2000, you know the distance India has traversed in the 21st Century, the phrase Rajiv Gandhi popularised and was ridiculed much for.
The opposition (not talking parties here) has however not given up. The fight against the clichéd multinationals continues. In fact, the Modi government can be fairly accused of regressing on globalisation and you would see the political opposition not opposing it. Protectionism is creeping back in trade and everybody seems to be happy. The bad words remain bad words. We progressed because we liked the light, not that the shadows made us uncomfortable. So, at every opportunity, we fight freedoms. We have fought freedom of speech by limiting it with reasonable restrictions that remain undefined to date. USA's first amendment freed speech of all restrictions, India’s first amendment put restrictions on free speech. “If firefighters fight fire and crime fighters fight crime, what do freedom fighters fight,” George Carlin once asked in jest. “Freedom?” he wondered.
We are a nation of freedom fighters. We have a strong tradition of fighting freedom; we invoke East India Company, perils of free-market, etc, every time someone talks change. The more things change, the more they don't. We have fought multinationals, economic liberalisation and today a large number of us are fighting the farm laws, with the belief that the laws will ultimately make paupers out of us poor farmers.
There are as many as 500 farmers' groups outraged against the farm laws. The communication from the government has been apathetic at best and pathetic for most of the time. (Photo: PTI)
The Farms Laws of 2020 were passed without much debate by the Parliament. There has been little informed debate about it outside the Parliament either. The nighty news debates do not count because we are talking of informed debates here and nuance, if any, dies in the cacophony of multiple panellists on a plasma screen. I have not heard any debate critically examining the three laws, clause by clause. Maybe because there is little you can be against, in principle, in these laws. While one can always exaggerate or underplay their possible misuse and undesirable consequences, the fact is these are projections based on assumptions, not facts. The truth is the laws do offer choice, protection and provide for alternative arrangements that can change how farmers see farming. The agriculture sector has remained largely untouched by the three-decades of economic liberalisation. The farmer seeks a dramatic change in his economic status because he has been left behind. The same farmer wants the status quo ante restored on the farm laws. The risks, one understands, are huge for the farmer. The gains can be huge too. This may change the way he grows grains and the grains he grows, as the produce will now be directly linked to the markets and vagaries of the free market.
This contradiction is what the government seems to be failing in addressing. There are as many as 500 farmers’ groups outraged against the farm laws. The communication from the government has been apathetic at best and pathetic for most of the time. It was extremely important to hear them in the immediate aftermath of the bills being passed in the Parliament. The pandemic is no excuse because protests began in earnest despite the pandemic. That the centre-state political tussle and the unexplained adamancy of the political leadership have ended up in this impasse should be an embarrassment to the whole political class (remember that the Congress proposed similar reforms and the BJP in opposition strongly opposed it). All change is resisted unless the incentive outweighs the risk. The risk-rappers have convinced them of the unlikely perils, the incentive-invokers have failed to even communicate the possible profits. The blockade cannot go on. If the past is any lesson, both sides must avoid a violent denouement. The rigidity displayed by both sides is ominous. Ibtida-e-risk hai rota hai kya, aage aage dekhiye hota hai kya. Ghalib said this about ishq, not risk. But as Harshad Mehta would say: Risk hai to ishq hai.