The last few years have seen farmers protesting across India — the mukh morchas (silent marches) in Maharashtra being particularly large — as an expression of rural distress. Now, an informal collective of farmer leaders, academics, and others have drawn up a ‘Farmers’ Manifesto for Freedom’ that attempts to bring together the various issues which conspire to ensure that the interests of rural India have been neglected.
The manifesto, published at farmersmanifesto.info in English and Hindi, says that since 1950, though India’s population has quadrupled, food grain production has increased nearly six-fold and the country has emerged as a major agriculture exporter. Despite this, hunger and malnutrition are real for large sections of Indians. Farmers, it says, are kept poor by their land being constantly under threat and restricted in its use (and often also used inefficiently), by their produce being devalued by restrictions and limited market access, and by limited access to technology. This, it says, ‘diminishes freedom and prosperity for all citizens.’
The document calls for freedoms of three kinds: nyaybandi (a dismantling of laws that have kept farmers in poverty), dhan mukti (allowing farmers to capitalise on their land and other assets), and dhan vapasi (the government returning to the people the land and resources it has taken from them).
Sharad Joshi’s legacy
One of the drafting team, Barun Mitra, writer and commentator on policy, says that though the document began taking shape in January, it had been in the minds of its creators for some time before that, as a reaction to the “disenchantment, disappointment that has been brewing for a long time and has come to a kind of critical mass, perhaps, in the last two years.”
Among the 70-plus people, including farmer leaders, who have endorsed the manifesto, two are Lok Sabha candidates: Mahesh Gajendragadkar (Pune, Swarna Bharat Party) and Sanjay Garg (Jaipur, Swarna Bharat Party), which the team hopes will grow as its outreach continues.
A significant chunk of the endorsers are from Maharashtra; this, Mr. Mitra says, is largely a legacy of the Sharad Joshi, farmers’ leader in the state, who passed away in 2015. “In his time, in the 80s and 90s, his was the lone voice of sanity in agriculture. He was instrumental, in that sense. I’m expecting a few thousand from Maharashtra to endorse this. In the early 90s when I first met him, I was already a kind of a libertarian activist, but it was only interacting with him that I realised what we were missing out: that a vast chunk of India is potentially to be engaged with and won over. He played a big role in making me believe that we can make out ideas go to a much wider audience.”
Beyond identity poltics
Indians tend to vote on identity lines rather than on issues. Will this time be different? “That’s definitely the million-dollar — or crore-rupee — question,” Mr. Mitra says, and proceeds with a disclaimer: “I have no other way of knowing except through experiences and rational guesses and feedback I get from people in different ways; it’s not a scientific exit poll.” He points out that caste and other considerations did not affect the 1977 polls, when the electorate decisively rejected Indira Gandhi. “Over a period of time, every political party that built their career on these various identities have tended to have a diminishing return, So to me while this is a learning curve for all of us as citizens, while identity politics captures the imagination and the discourse, I don’t think it is that big any more.” After the inspirations and aspirations of independence, he says, Indian went into a mode of development where patronage became key, which gave birth to identity politics. “Because when politics is about patronage, every identity seeks to secure as much patronage for themselves.” Over time, since there is limit to what can be distributed, more people feel left out. “This is an opportune time. Because there is a diminishing return to identity politics, we expect issues to emerge, which means that from identity, we will come to a stage where development and more rational discourse might be called for. The 2014 election was an indication of that, however misplaced it was.”
As someone who felt he and his friends were in a minority in their apprehensions about the NDA government not changing things much, and in fact making things worse, he does feel vindicated, but sad because an opportunity was lost. “But the best thing to come out of this is that identity politics was at its worst in 2014. The question is that those who tried to break the identity politics are trying to go back and fall back on another kind of identity politics. So now we have a completely different set of identity politics which is trying to create a majoritarian identity in a country that is extremely plural and diverse. We shall see how that plays out.”
The 2019 elections will be different, Mr. Mitra says. “Winning or losing in a multi-cornered election is a matter of just 1% or 2% or votes in most cases; the arithmetic at the end may or may not reflect what we are thinking and hoping, but Given the uniformity of the desire, the churning at the rural level, I won’t be surprised if we see a rural election this time. That is, rural India voting in a direction which will surprise most of us.” This, Mr. Mitra says, is unusual, because rural India has never had a unified political voice except on some specific issues from time to time. “It has not been as rural distress across the country in the way that it has built up over the last two, three, four years. This is politically quite significant; we are all waiting to see how it plays out.”
Work in progress
The manifesto, while it has been published, is in a sense a work in progress, an attempt to gauge whether its creators have correctly understood and communicated the issues. Mr. Mitra says, “Most of us who try to advocate policy reforms — I’m not talking now of the content or the direction of that policy — tend to believe that our policies don’t get accepted because either the political establishment is venal and corrupt, or the public don’t understand us; we rarely think that we are unable to make the public understand us. Friends, particularly in Maharashtra, are trying to take this out to the people while the election is going on, to test out precisely that: do we make sense, or do we need to learn how to communicate better? I would not like to point fingers at our audience. If there’s a blame, it’s directed at us. It’s our failure.”
So it’s an experiment in whether they have captured the pulse? “Yes,” he says, “it’s an experiment to test whether we are anywhere near the pulse, or whether we can get the pulse excited and running based on these ideas.”