Wise commentary cannot substitute for political action to change the status quo
By forcing the government to repeal the laws, enacted without parliamentary scrutiny or debate and devoid of prior consultation and alternative paths to prosperity for the beneficiaries of the policy being dismantled, the farmers have advanced the cause of democracy.
Is it possible to accept the need to end open-ended state procurement of grain at ever-rising prices and, simultaneously, celebrate the repeal of the farm laws brought in by the Narendra Modi government to move towards that goal? The answer is a resounding yes.
This is because the farm laws were not just laws on farming but a manifestation of the possibility to drain democracy of its essence even as the ritual of elections is rigorously observed. By forcing the government to repeal the laws, enacted without parliamentary scrutiny or debate and devoid of prior consultation and alternative paths to prosperity for the beneficiaries of the policy being dismantled, the farmers have advanced the cause of democracy.
Sticks and Stones
The farmers did not secure their objective by issuing statements or sending out a rousing tweet every morning from the comfort of their homes. They were out on the street, far away from their hearths and fields, agitating, for a year, against what they deemed unjust laws, suffering the loss of life, extreme weather, the calumny of being portrayed as secessionists, vested interests, and habitual agitators and, in one instance, being mowed down by a sports utility vehicle powered by ministerial arrogance.
The farmers carried out political action. Political action is what changes the balance of power in the polity. It mobilizes people, deploys them against the state – or against groups of people – and inspires sympathy for their cause from a much wider cohort than those directly involved in the action.
This might seem like a self-evident truism. Why harp on the significance of political action? For the straightforward reason that the need for political action has not been obvious to the Opposition, even as they railed and ranted against the Modi government these past several years.
It has been sections of the people who have resorted to political action against the government, rather than political parties: the women of Shaheen Bagh and students of several universities, in the face of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the farmers, against the farm laws.
Of course, leaders of the Opposition have tried to claim leadership of such political action, placing themselves at the forefront of processions, issuing vehement statements, and chirping away on Twitter. But those presumed to be led as well as the intended observers of such leadership all see through the presumptuous leaders and their hollow core.
All political action is not emancipatory or designed to enhance democracy. Take the demolition of the Bahri Masjid at Ayodhya. What differentiated it from a mere act of vandalism was the campaign that had gone on for nearly seven years prior to the demolition, to portray the mosque as a symbol of civilizational subjugation of Hindus and its demolition as essential redemption, the mass mobilization of the merely devout as political activists through symbolic consecration of bricks in the village after village across the land. That began the transformation of political values to today’s norms that tolerate a member of Parliament hailing Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin as a true patriot.
Or, take demonetization. It was political action, to convince the people that their leader was attacking black money and the illicit rich, and the people were asked to queue up in front of banks, to become participants in that battle. It worked as political action, who cares if it worked as an economic measure?
Engineered communal riots fall in the category of political action as well. As do agitations by so-called ‘civil society’ movements that work to deepen democracy by focusing on specific sections or demands, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan that sought justice for dam oustees, or the mobilization in favor of the right to information.
A notable feature of mass political action in Independent India’s history has been that these were all initiated by parties or groups other than Congress. The anti-corruption movements in the run-up to the Emergency, the anti-Emergency mobilization, the nativist agitation in Assam, the Ayodhya movement, the pro-and anti-Mandal Commission rallies, some large-scale farmer protests, including misguided movements against converting farmland into industrial estates — none was led by the Congress.
The Congress had been the ruling party for much of the period, and so at the receiving end of mass political action. Perhaps this explains why the party seems to lack the capacity for political action, even when it finds itself firmly in the Opposition and bemoans electoral autocracies.
All political action need not be directed at the state. The formation of a cooperative, for example, changes power equations in society, at one removal from the state machinery. Cultural action to undermine value systems that encode caste hierarchy and women’s subordination in social life is political, in the sense that it redistributes power more equally, while not directly targeting the state.
All such action builds democracy and improve lives. The farmers’ victory should inspire more, and diverse, political action, to build democracy in India.
First published at The Economic Times titled Should the repeal of the farm laws brought in by the Modi government be celebrated? on 24 November 2021
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About the Author
T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi