Two apparently unconnected events happened on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. All demands for grants were ‘guillotined’ (ie moneys were allocated without a debate) and the Lok Sabha passed the Finance Bill 2018 without a discussion. Three Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar voted decisively in favour of the candidate who defeated the BJP’s candidate.
The first event represented the arrogance of a party’s power, the second the assertion of people’s power.
I am fascinated by events and incidents that illustrate the fact that, more than any person or institution, it is the people of India who will call the government’s callousness, ineptitude and bluff. From Maharashtra to Gujarat to Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh to Bihar, the gathering storm is plainly evident. Rural India is in acute distress and urban India is divided among the helpless poor and middle class and the palanquin-bearing sections that will go along with any regime.
Agriculture in crisis
Let’s begin with rural India. Sixty per cent of the population is dependent — as its main source of livelihood — on agriculture (whose share in GDP is just 16%). They include small farmers, landless agricultural labourers, family labour, village industries, vendors in the village markets, petty shopkeepers, and the small service providers. They are the poor. Their poverty affects every aspect of their lives — from their children’s education to access to healthcare to finding meaningful employment.
When agriculture is affected, the lives of 60% of the population are affected. When agricultural income falls, those who earn non-agricultural income also see a fall in their income.
What is the record of the NDA government in the last four years? The Economic Survey 2017-18 said: “The level of real agricultural GDP and real agricultural incomes has remained constant.” That conclusion alone captures the state of agriculture after four years of the NDA government.
Why did this happen? For four years, the NDA government kept the increase in MSP to a bare minimum. Gross Capital Formation (GCF) in agriculture fell from 2.9% of GDP in 2013-14 to 2.17% in 2016-17. In 2016-17, there was a good monsoon, but just when farmers were taking their produce to the market, demonetisation dealt a body blow and prices of agricultural products crashed. The search of rural youth for non-farm jobs was futile because demonetisation and a flawed GST destroyed millions of jobs in the small and medium
Is there any wonder that over 30,000 farmers marched 170 km in Maharashtra to voice their protest? Their demands were not unusual or extraordinary: they included farm loan waiver, remunerative prices, no land acquisition without consent, vesting of temple lands and pasture lands in the tillers, increase in pension to poor farmers and farm labourers, compensation for loss due to hailstorm or pest attacks, and conferring rights under the Forest Rights Act. Neither Parliament nor the state legislatures seem able or willing to listen to the farmers’ woes and act. Farmers’ protests will intensify across Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
The by-election surprise
Gorakhpur and Phulpur — one largely rural, the other mainly urban — tell another story. Gorakhpur was an authoritarian enclave in a so-called democratic state. The moral police (Hindu Yuva Vahini) was born there. Under the BJP government, the state has brazenly defended its bias towards one religion and the ‘right’ of the state to kill suspected criminals in encounters that are obviously staged. The government has little to show by way of development or jobs. The voters — especially the Dalits, the OBCs, the minorities and the unemployed youth — have revolted.
Araria (in Bihar) was another kind of revolt. It was a revolt against the moral mask of an anti-corruption warrior worn by the rulers to hide their ineptitude, crass opportunism and failure to deliver on the promises of “double-engine growth”.
The passage of the Finance Bill (which is a Money Bill) without a discussion, is another blow to democracy. It is the responsibility of the Treasury benches to run the House and transact government business. Brushing aside the responsibility, and emboldened by the absolute majority enjoyed in the Lok Sabha, the government has looked upon the Opposition benches with contempt, especially in passing Bills in the Lok Sabha. It is only in the Rajya Sabha that the government has shown some respect to the Opposition, but even that minimum respect has been denied with a Money Bill, where the Rajya Sabha can do nothing.
The people are watching. There is no more talk of achche din. Every promise — Rs 15 lakh deposit, two-crore jobs per year, doubling farmers’ incomes, double-digit growth, permanent solution to the Kashmir issue, and teaching Pakistan a final lesson — has turned out to be hollow and the people know that.
The people also know that in the present circumstances, there is not a sole political party that can displace the BJP. Hence, they are voting for the candidate who can defeat the BJP’s candidate. The people are looking for a strong alternative narrative. An alternative narrative can be built on debt forgiveness, remunerative prices for farm products, generous credit, revival of small and medium businesses, a stable and rewarding business environment for the private sector, creation of jobs, and safety nets for the poor and vulnerable sections of the people.
The message sent by the average voter is loud and clear. It must be heard by the Opposition parties, including the Congress.