Home / Opinion / Pol Pot’s princely follower

It is faintly amusing to see Rahul Gandhi, a prince by any measure, tour India’s distress-hit agricultural districts. His visits to Punjab and Maharashtra at a time of crop failures has struck a chord, making the Narendra Modi government nervous.

Every decade or so, India witnesses an agricultural crisis. Usually, the trigger is a monsoon failure. First, agricultural incomes and wages fall. This is followed by distress-related events such as debt defaults and in extreme situations, suicides. The latter serve as political trigger for loan-waivers and other palliatives. In the last one decade, roughly 2004-2015, India has managed its agricultural situation well but at a very high cost. Since 2007, the Union government spent in excess of 2.5 trillion under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Between 2004 and 2011, lending by banks to rural areas went up from 0.85 trillion to 4.5 trillion. In 2008, the single biggest agricultural loan waiver was effected. Its tab: 0.6 trillion. (These figures were supplied by a colleague).

But this has not ended what was once described by Karl Marx as the antithesis between town and country with the latter being “exploited" by the former. The countryside serving as a cheap source of raw materials and labour. Once in a while, the countryside’s back gets broken by this exploitation. This prompted Marx to proclaim in The Communist Manifesto that ending the antithesis between town and country was one of the key tasks of the revolution.

Plenty of Indians, and not just Leftist intellectuals, seem to be reading The Communist Manifesto. It is tempting to think that even Gandhi may be motivated by the tract. What is happening in India is best seen in historical light.

Historically, there have been only two ways to end the antithesis between town and country. One is to move farmers away from land to industry. No country in the world has industrialized without undergoing what Marx called “primitive accumulation". Depending on the scale and intensity of the transformation, the process can be smooth or painful. There is no distinction between capitalist and socialist roads to this change: if the intensity of the change is strong, peasant resistance will be bloody. In Britain, the Enclosure Movement, roughly from 1760 to 1820, provided the labour needed for the Industrial Revolution. Farmers were dislocated from their lands and forced to move into cities for work in factories. Something similar happened in the Soviet Union in the 20th century. If he were not a communist, the ideas of Evgeny Preobrazhensky—the intellectual force behind Soviet industrialization—would be no different from those of a fat cat in London.

The result—whether by Enclosure or by the way of Gulag—was same: industrialization on a big scale. In England, the agrarian question ceased to matter much before Marx was interred at Highgate cemetery. In the US, the question has never mattered. In Russia, too, by a series of historical accidents, this distinction has ceased to matter.

The other way, one that has not succeeded, is to move everyone to the countryside. If there are no urban areas left, there will be no antithesis between town and country. This path was tried by Pol Pot in Cambodia in 1973-74 when he forcibly moved a huge mass of people from cities to the countryside. Not only was the process violent but it did not yield the desired result: At no point in its modern history did Cambodia resemble an agrarian paradise. After immense misery, the country returned to equilibrium, where it finds itself today.

So, where does this leave contemporary India? Compared with Russia (and Cambodia for sure), India is a far-more urbanized country. But what marks off India from those countries are two very specific features. Alone among countries of its size, India is a democracy with a horrible land-to-man ratio. The effects of these twin factors are pernicious. On the one hand, electoral politics will ensure that incentives are always tilted strongly against land acquisition for industrialization. On the other hand, the scale change required to make a difference is so daunting that leaders from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi have found it almost impossible to industrialize the Indian countryside. This makes any notion of primitive accumulation stillborn. Does one need to look for more reasons why sections of the Indian middle class and the business elite hanker for strong leadership?

To return to the original question about the prince. He bears no resemblance—physically or mentally—to Brother Number One. But his championing of the 2013 land acquisition law comes close to the anti-urban and anti-industry policies that characterized the Khmer Rouge regime. To many, this will seem an extreme comparison. It is not: the difference between the two cases is the absence of overt violence in India. But in effect, the results will be similar: a vast countryside marked by poverty and dependent on periodic doles for its existence. The numbers mentioned at the start should be seen in this light.

The 2013 law is draconian. While it is couched in the language of justice for landholders, in effect it is a device to ensure that people remain tied to land. When it is added to the list of policies made since 2004—the centrepiece being MGNREGS—the rural bias of Gandhi and his party is clear. This will, of course, not help India’s farmers or, for that matter, all the Indian people including, of course, the bourgeoisie.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist takes stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.

Comment at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist

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