The farmers’ struggle represents a major step towards undoing the dominance of the corporate-Hindutva alliance that has characterised India for the last few years. Peasants, petty producers like craftsmen and artisans, and fishermen have been among the worst victims of neoliberalism, which has progressively removed all fetters against the spontaneous tendency of big capital to encroach upon their domains. While the attack against the workers under neoliberalism is well-known, its systemic assault on the petty production sector is less appreciated, writes Prabhat Patnaik.
THE dirigiste regime of the earlier period had put barriers of various kinds against any encroachment by the capitalist sector into the domain of petty production. This was done through a policy of reserving certain items for the handloom sector; through the State interposing itself between the peasants and the ‘outside’ world by providing minimum support and procurement prices; through the provision of a variety of subsidies, and so on.
To be clear, it did not prevent differentiation within the sector of petty producers. Nor did it prevent the emergence of a capitalist tendency within the same. It did, however, provide a barrier against the outside capitalist sector making inroads into petty production.
The Onset of Neoliberalism
Even when neoliberal policies were introduced, the Congress government did not entirely undo the protective umbrella. Subsidies were whittled down, procurement prices were not raised as they should have been and, in the case of cash crops, market intervention to support the peasantry was abandoned altogether.
These measures squeezed the profitability of agriculture and caught the peasantry in the grip of impossible debt, reminiscent of the 1930s when they were hit by the Great Depression. Such debt resulted in lakhs of peasants committing suicide after the introduction of neoliberal policies.
Yet, the squeeze that was imposed on the peasantry was more or less within the old arrangement. While in general conformity with the immanent tendencies of neoliberalism, it did not leave agriculture (and other petty production sectors) completely at the mercy of an unfettered market, completely open to encroachment by big capital.
Joining Hands with Hindutva
With the onset of its crisis, however, neoliberalism has sought an alliance with Hindutva in order to provide itself with a new prop, given that the old one of “growth-will-ultimately-benefit-everyone” has ceased to be credible in a period when growth itself has dried up.
Under this alliance, the assault on petty production has taken on an aggressive form. The Modi government has launched an open attack on the petty production sector, first by squeezing its profitability even further, then through the demonetisation of currency notes, then through the Goods and Services Tax which fell disproportionately on this sector, and now finally through the three bills on agriculture.
Where the Farm Bills Fit In
These bills carry forward the neoliberal agenda with a vengeance. Thus it is not surprising that there is ample support for the objectives of Modi’s three bills, from the US administration to the IMF, even though there is criticism of the Modi government’s handling of the farmers’ protest.
The farmers and other petty producers have thus been in the firing line of neoliberalism from the very beginning, as have been the urban workers. The attack on the latter, being better known and better understood, has brought forth a spate of actions of resistance. In the beginning the farmers, like other sections of the oppressed people, faced this assault with patience and quietude. They committed suicide by the lakhs but did not put up any significant fight against the neoliberal assault. The three bills, however, have proven to be the proverbial ‘last straw’.
What’s Special About the Farmers’ Protest
The struggle of the farmers, apart from its sheer scale and determination, has at least three notable features. The first is its pan-Indian character. Many earlier peasant struggles have been confined to specific areas or states and have opposed specific measures, such as hikes in water charges or electricity rates, or the like.
But this struggle, though geographically located mainly in north India, has articulated demands that find a sympathetic response all over the country, as is evident from the simultaneous kisan marches in Maharashtra, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and elsewhere.
The second feature is the immense change it has brought about in the attitudes of the kisans themselves. It is a hallmark of any significant mass movement that it revolutionizes the attitudes of the participants. The fact that kisans and agricultural labourers belonging to different religions and castes, who would have been opposed to one another just a few months ago, are now struggling together against the three bills, represents a sea-change in the Indian polity.
A similar change can be detected in the sympathy shown by the kisans towards those incarcerated by the BJP government under all sorts of draconian laws, like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). For instance, the plight of the Bhima Koregaon arrestees – which would not have been a matter of much concern among the protestors a few weeks ago – has now aroused much sympathy among them. The fact that struggle unites people is underscored by the massive and spontaneous help that the protestors have got from the neighbouring villages and from the workers in the neighbouring industrial units.
The third significant feature of the farmer’s struggle is that it is implacably opposed to neoliberalism. Of course, the demand of the struggle is the repeal of the three bills, but the bills, as underscored above, carry forward the neoliberal agenda. They fall in line with imperialist demands; they directly benefit a couple of corporate houses in the country that are closely integrated with international finance capital, and they contribute massively towards the attenuation of the petty production sector. All these are in keeping with the vision of neoliberalism.
These bills being repealed would amount to a roll-back of neoliberalism, at least in this area, and while tardiness in the introduction of neoliberalism is one thing, a roll-back of neoliberalism, even in one critical area, is quite another.
With the Farm Bills, Government Won’t Back Down
Modi’s intransigence in this matter has been attributed to his inflated ego; his overwhelming desire to maintain the myth that he knows best what is good for the kisans. This charge is undoubtedly true, but the maintenance of this myth is not just to assuage some psychological trait of Modi; it is an instrument for carrying forward the neoliberal agenda. If Modi knows best what is good for everyone, and if Modi thinks the neoliberal agenda to be beneficial for all, then so it must be.
Thus the myth of Modi’s omniscience, while tickling his ego, also has a functional role for neoliberalism which it would dearly wish to maintain. What the kisans have done is to puncture this myth. Moreover, repealing the laws would not just confirm this puncturing, it would simultaneously mean a rollback of crucial neoliberal steps which, once rolled back, cannot be reintroduced.
This is why the government is keen only to accommodate changes, to make adjustments, within the laws, but is totally opposed to any repeal of the laws. All such changes within the laws, as long as the laws themselves remain in place, would still entail an acceptance of the neoliberal agenda.
What the kisans are demanding, however, is a jettisoning of this agenda altogether in the matter of the encroachment of monopoly capital into the sphere of petty production. That is why the corporate-Hindutva alliance, which swears by neoliberalism, is so opposed to the farmers’ demands. It finds itself in a bind as it sees its dominance getting eroded before its very eyes. (IPA Service)
(Prabhat Patnaik is a political economist and former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.)