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BJP govt must be careful about ecosystem trying to engineer price rises

To be sure, things are a lot different now. The ecosystem is much weaker than it was in 1998. But it never hurts to be forever watchful.

On the recent farm sector reform bills, the hypocrisies of the opposition are perhaps too numerous to count. We could start from the fact that in 2012, then Prime Minister Dr. Singh appealed to states to reform the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and create a national market. In his signature style of always using a raincoat when in the shower, Dr. Singh didn’t actually do anything.

Then, there is of course the fact that the Congress manifesto for the 2019 elections promised to end the monopoly of the APMCs. On the Essential Commodities Act of 1955, the Congress manifesto was even more severe, perhaps taking a jibe at Nehru! The Congress manifesto called it something that belongs to the “age of controls.” Very clear thinking, one must say. Except that the Congress is opposing both its manifesto promises right now.

Then, there is Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram. He wants to know how the government will guarantee an MSP in private transactions. Well, the new act does not abolish APMCs, it merely removes their monopoly. When the higher MSP is still available at the APMC, why would any farmer sell at a lower price outside it?

It isn’t just the Congress. There are the left parties as well, who have been vocal in their criticism. Ironically, CPI(M) ruled Kerala is one of the few states that does not even have APMCs. Nobody knows what the left is even doing.

But as long as venerable members of the opposition can climb up to the table of the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha and break his mike, who cares? Opposing Modi is the one point agenda. No matter how silly they look.

But the BJP government needs to watch out about what comes next. The so called “age of controls” may be over, but the mentality of that era might not be. The ghost of socialism is far from dead. We never know what can bring the paranoid socialist era fears back with a bang.

And if the “ecosystem” can do anything about it, they most certainly will.

The year was 1998 and Atalji had just assumed power as Prime Minister. This was India’s first truly non-Congress government. As Modi ji had put it in 2013, Atal Behari Vajpayee was the first Prime Minister of India who did not come from what he called “Congress gotra.”

Then, something happened, which a lot of people may not be old enough to remember. The prices of onions started soaring and nobody knew why. People had never seen a non-Congress government before. Sure, they were hopeful, but they were also nervous. Nobody knew for sure if a non-Congress government could actually run the country. And when the price of onions began soaring, panic set in among the populace.

The media quickly got into the act. The newspapers began raising a fever pitch. Entertainers such as comedians on TV stepped in as well to create a wave of public opinion against the new government. Remember that back then, almost all of these people were beholden to the old establishment.

The panic cost the BJP heavily in the state elections later that year. It lost Delhi and Rajasthan by massive margins. In Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh managed to save his government by a whisker.

The onion panic of 1998 cost the BJP three crucial states. The elections ended. The price of onions came down to normal.

Could something similar happen with food items today, after the reforms to the Essential Commodities Act? We don’t know, but the fear certainly is there.

To be sure, things are a lot different now. The ecosystem is much weaker than it was in 1998. Those who run the links in the supply chain are no longer beholden to the old establishment. Not everyone in the media is beholden to them either. And finally, the population itself has changed. Nobody asks today if a non-Congress government can run the country.

But it never hurts to be forever watchful.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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