On January 27, farm leader Rakesh Tikait’s emotional appeal provided a fresh momentum to the farm protests, with Jats joining in large numbers. The Centre, fearing another January 26-like violent episode, responded with heavy police presence and barricades, and shutting down the internet in Delhi’s adjoining areas. These images added to the perception of State coercion, which led to global criticism, symbolised by the artiste Rihanna’s tweet. This, in turn, triggered a government response.
But beyond these immediate responses, there is a deeper story of a shift in India’s political economy.
Let us start with a simple question. Why did Tikait’s appeal, when faced with police attempts to vacate the protest site, go viral? Clearly, Jats perceived Tikait’s possible arrest or persecution as the State coming down on the legacy of his father, Mahendra Singh Tikait — a legendary farm leader, whose struggle earned him the status of a demigod in his community. When Rakesh Tikait was seen as facing the State’s might while fighting for a cause which his father championed, the community responded overwhelmingly.
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Remember, the same Jat peasantry consolidated behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the Muzafffarnagar riots of 2013. Even before the riots, Jat khap panchayats had gained notoriety for persecuting marriages in violation of what the community considered acceptable. Progressives who are, today, celebrating khap panchayats condemning farm laws used to describe them as medieval institutions back then. The BJP, having used the same khap institutions for its Hindutva project, is, now, in the unenviable position of discrediting them and inviting more backlash.
But this does not necessarily mean that the dominant value system among Jats has undergone a shift. What is more likely is a shift in the dominant political contradiction. Jats may have been alarmed about the real or perceived clout of Muslims with a Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh. That is not the case anymore. Political friendships change with political equations. It is to be seen whether anti-BJP parties can exploit what seems to be the muting of Hindutva as the primary contradiction among a dominant peasant community such as the Jats. When clubbed with the discontent among other dominant peasant communities such as Patidars and Marathas, this can be a potential political game changer. But this is not inevitable. If the BJP continues to consolidate non-dominant communities, who have an antagonistic social relation with the dominant peasant groups, such attempts will fail. So the electoral implication of the current shift will hinge on how successfully the Opposition is able to manage the conflict between the landed and non-landed sections of the peasantry.
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Let us now come to the question of international liberal anguish over the protests. While the outpouring seems to be driven by State’s high-handed response, do remember that the origins of these protests are economic in nature as against the primarily identity-based discontent triggered by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Interestingly, the Indian State is acting in keeping with the economic orthodoxy, championed by capitalist countries of the West, in pushing for the farm laws. World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules prohibit India from expanding the scope or coverage of the minimum support price (MSP) system, a key demand of the farmers. While it is unfair to raise this question to celebrities, is liberal opinion in the West willing to support the material demands of Indian farmers, which go against the interests of what continues to be heavily subsidised export-oriented agriculture in advanced countries?
This contradiction does not limit itself to agriculture. Both international and domestic capital would like to see greater deregulation in India. However, each such attempt is likely to trigger deeper domestic unrest. This happened during the push to allow greater room for land acquisition. Farm protests are driven by fears that big business will abuse its dominant position in the farm-economy. Privatisation of government banks and insurance companies, where trade unions still have some clout, is not likely to be smooth either.
Watch: Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter visits farmers’ protest site in Ghazipur
Economic reforms are not new. But, 30 years after the 1991 transition, what has changed? The Marxist perspective of character of the Indian bourgeoisie offers clues. After Independence, there was a broad consensus between the political and economic elite about a State-led growth strategy. Big business was willing to cede leadership to the State because it lacked access to capital and could not surmount the challenges of technology and competition from foreign producers.
As the economy grew, at least a section of big capital in India gained the ability to compete. Their opposition to reforms dipped. To be sure, there have been attempts to tailor reforms, especially regarding allowing foreign competitors, to suit strategic needs of big business groups. But the big picture is of a new consensus between the State and big domestic capital to pursue reforms.
The basic contradiction around reforms, in a way, has shifted from one between domestic and foreign capital to one between the organised and unorganised sector, where the former is interested in usurping a larger part of the surplus which is generated in the latter. Marxists describe this as the process of primitive capitalist accumulation. This process is likely to add to overall growth. However, it is also likely to leave a majority of stakeholders in the unorganised sector with less than what they were getting in the pre-reform phase.
The BJP has attempted to politically neutralise any discontent from this distress with the implementation of various welfare schemes. While such programmes can attract the poorest of the poor, they are unlikely to pacify the more dominant elements in the unorganised sector. Although insignificant when compared to India’s big business, the economic standing of this class makes them less susceptible to such welfare inducements.
This class has, so far, suffered indirectly due to economic reforms. But it has not had reasons to directly confront them. The 1991 reforms, which altered the relationship between domestic capital, foreign capital and the State, have been called “reforms by stealth” — but worked because of their relatively limited scope. Those affected by reforms are a much larger pool now, and stealth isn’t an option. That the protests against the farm laws have erupted at a time when the non-farm economy has contracted and farming has emerged as a sort of employer of last resort might only have added to the sense of siege.
All these developments mark the beginning of an impossible trinity for both sides in India’s political economy.
The BJP can keep dominant peasant communities happy by focusing on Hindutva, but that is unlikely to help it in winning support from big business. The ideological commitment to belief in big-business led growth aside, the latter is crucial for the centralised political finance model that the BJP has institutionalised. And attempts to keep pushing Hindutva and reform are likely to ferment civic unrest, which is likely to draw international ire.
For the BJP’s opponents, attempts to push social reform or radical secularism are likely to alienate the dominant Hindu social elite. Completely abandoning these principles is likely to push minorities towards their own political formations. Taking an outright hostile position against economic reforms will have costs — especially for the Congress, which too, has been historically dependent on big business funding. And not taking a critical position will lose it the support of the emerging constituencies of discontent.
Indian politics is likely to be determined by how well both political camps handle these impossible trinities.