Bucolic India has always got good press. It is the most romanticised public postcard of our late unlamented welfare state, which had been treating India’s rural citizen as the biggest vote bank. The Indian farmer was the Congress party’s poster boy of essential India. The idea was borrowed from Soviet propaganda, showing duotone posters of muscular men and women holding aloft sickles and bushels of wheat. This perverse Rubaiyyat of austere self-sufficiency seduced India’s Socialist parties. The Indian farmer has since been politically marketed as the immutable face of change—a moral force which stays upright in the face of adversity, whether it be a bad monsoon or unrest over a new SEZ. Now there is a new economy on the block. The freebie regime that promoted poverty and corruption in rural India has been mothballed. Lenin is out. Darwin is in.
Apart from the Congress, most regional and caste-based parties are habituated to riding the farmer bandwagon to power. From this budget on, hopefully there would be no more new schemes akin to MGNREGS, loan-waiver for farmers and food security by emptying the national treasury to buy votes. No paying off the electricity bills of farmers. No exemption from purchase taxes. No interest-free loans. No free power. No income security guarantees. The free ride on the populist bullock cart is over. It’s time to rev up rural Indian through competition. It could take a generation or two, but it’s possible to turn him into a modern brand, instead of remaining a cliché—of an old man in a dirty turban, holding a stick and mourning over a cracked, parched earth beneath a merciless sky.
Evolution is about the ability to compete, which is the most important protein of triumph. India’s welfarists, however, kept rural and tribal India hobbled and poor. It has suited the gigantic nexus of the politician, the bureaucrat and the private contractor to profit from dole policies, which enriches them instead of putting money in the pockets of the intended recipients. It has, through the politics of patronage, made the rich farmer richer and the poor poorer.
In India’s dark feudal hinterland, where caste and misogyny determine the complex calculus of power, ignorance born out of poverty is what nourishes leaders and parties. Mahatma Gandhi, who found purity in poverty as a personal philosophy of cleansing the soul, is cited as the role model for the welfare state: after all wasn’t he a prophet of reservation? Conveniently ignored is the fact that affirmative action, meant to give a step up to a generation of disadvantaged Indians became a permanent policy under the Congress, Left, Socialists and Lohiaites. They excelled in social re-engineering for votes with skewed land reforms and creating divisions of faith and wealth. Under them, government became a tool to inhibit competition and empower the rural Indian through education and the creation of infrastructure. If anyone has created two Indias—the spiralling rich and the vertiginous poor—it is they. Rurban Indians, who provide software millionaires with drivers and corporate bankers with maids live in slums and dream of prosperity under the shadow of skyrises. In villages, indentured labourers who toil in the fields to work off crippling debt to powerful landlords are the children of warped welfare.
All that could change. Instead of loan-waivers, the answer would be empowering initiatives like agricultural credit, rural infrastructure development, long-term rural credit fund and setting a faster pace and intent for NABARD. Instead of TV channels owned by political satraps, a dedicated kisaan channel, if set up, could give cultivators real-time updates on farming conditions. In time, the rural Indian would be able to exploit the opportunities of the new world order that benefits the post-reform agricultural entrepreneur. India is projected to be the world’s third largest economy by 2020. With a competitive modern agricultural system, combined with a powerful industry, it could happen even sooner.
Then India would truly reap the harvest of change.