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Three ways in which so called farmer protest is taking us back to the dark ages of the 1980s

Who wants to go back? Anyone fancy a return to the India of the 1980s? Well, what if I told you that prospect looms large at the doorstep of Delhi right now?

The 1980s were not a good time to be an Indian. The vast majority lived in absolute misery, standing in endless lines for everything from grain to cooking oil. If you had anything above subsistence level, such as enough money to buy a third hand 1960s model Ambassador car, you were considered middle class. If your family could afford a trip to Nepal, you would be dazzled by all the different kinds of ‘luxury’ soap available in their markets.

Many millions were destitute and the BBC came regularly to file ‘drain inspector’ reports. In Calcutta, a certain foreigner was so moved by our plight that she opened a “Home for the dying.” No medicines, no treatment. Just a place to lie down and maybe get a few drops of water before dying of hunger and disease.

It was a miserable way for nearly one-sixth of humanity to exist. Believe me, you don’t want to go back there. Four decades of failed Nehruvian socialist policies had turned India into a basket case. In case you are wondering, Pakistan had a much higher per capita GDP than we did.

Pushed to the wall, India finally decided to change course in 1991. And almost everything good that has happened in independent India followed after that. And in 2007, India finally did manage to wiggle past Pakistan in per capita GDP. Sixty years to catch up to Pakistan!

Who wants to go back? Anyone fancy a return to the India of the 1980s? Well, what if I told you that prospect looms large at the doorstep of Delhi right now? A group of so called farmer leaders have brought in people to block the national highways around Delhi. They have choked the national capital, caused factories to lose hundreds of crores of business, stormed the Red Fort and so on. But the most scary part is that they are trying to bring back everything that miserable about India of the 1980s.

Consider this. First, they all speak the language of hatred against private enterprise. Their rhetoric is straight out of an old Bollywood movie where the ‘angry young man’ takes on the greedy capitalists and ‘saves’ everyone from exploitation. They want to destroy mobile phone towers that connect us to the world. They want to ban all sales of produce across state or even district lines. And they want a legal guarantee that the government must buy everything at guaranteed rates at the local “market.” License, quota and permit. A command economy, a forever agrarian economy with low skilled farmers forever toiling on small plots of land.

Is this the nation you had in mind? Remember how we cherished the tag of fastest growing economy? Remember how we sulked when India lost that spot in 2019? Do you think the so called farmer leaders have a vision to match those aspirations? And yet, they say that this dim vision of India is the new cool. They are pumping the heady poison into the veins of young India, one ‘woke’ influencer at a time.

Second, when the so called leaders realized they could not muster mass support, what did they do? They began to stoke Sikh separatist sentiments. Thanks to these so called leaders, a social fault-line that had been plugged decades ago has turned into a gulf again. Once again, there are murmurs of fear and suspicion between Hindus and Sikhs.

Across the world, Khalistani organizations have jumped into the act. They lobby with foreign politicians who speak of this movement in openly religious terms. Even Indian liberals, many of whom write columns in western newspapers, support the agitators with openly religious slogans. They barely conceal their hand.

Decades ago, India paid a terrible price for this. Do you want to go back there again?

And most recently, after the storming of the Red Fort, the discredited movement has tried to turn over a new leaf. This time, they want to be a caste agitation. You know, I remember a time when caste based panchayats were derided as regressive and patriarchal. Who knew that in 2021, caste based panchayats would be hailed as the cutting edge of Indian “liberalism”?

A socialist agrarian economy, Sikh separatist movements and community action driven by caste based panchayats. Are we back in the 1980s yet? They say it’s the new cool. In fact, their message is targeting the youth. The generation that was born after (economic) independence. The generation that has not seen the human cost of Nehruvian socialism.

We get it. The Indian farmer is hard done by. Have you wondered why? Why is it that the average farmer does not want their sons and daughters to take up agriculture? Perhaps because the farmers got left behind by the rest. Once upon a time, a state like Punjab, powered by its farmers, was the richest in India. Today it is not even in the top ten. Why?

Because reform. Economic reform released the rest of the economy from the clutches of Nehruvian socialism. And it soared. The service sector, which was the least regulated, today accounts for over half of the nation’s GDP. The industrial sector, which is moderately regulated, has still managed to make its mark. Beyond these lies the agriculture sector, still in Nehruvian socialist mode, employing half of all people but not even producing a fifth of the GDP.

Today the same 1991 moment has come to the doorstep of India’s farmers. Will we fall for emotional blackmail by a bunch of so called leaders with nothing to offer the country except failed socialist ideas, separatist rhetoric and caste based panchayats?

In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi, the biggest and possibly the only beneficiary of Nehruvian socialism, had observed that just 15 paise of every rupee sent from Delhi ever reaches the ground. This December, PM Modi pressed a button and transferred money directly into the accounts of millions of farmers. Not a single paisa could be stolen in between.

This in a nutshell is the choice that India faces. India 2020+ or India 1980- ? Which one would you live in?

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author.  

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