In what can only be described as his latest performance, Akshay Kumar acts as a journalist interviewing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is convincing as a hesitant, rookie reporter in awe of his subject, apologetically telling a joke about Gujaratis which yields a polite, indulgent smile.

Another question he asked has provoked considerable mirth among those who saw the show.

How do you eat a mango? Do you cut it into small pieces and chew them one by one, or do you suck the juice? In the annals of Indian journalism, this question will rank on par with what Prasoon Joshi had asked Modi last year—You don’t want anything for yourself; you are a fakir (ascetic). Were you always like that or did it happen gradually?

Both the options Akshay Kumar offered Modi—chewing a mango or sucking its juice—show the massive disconnect with the Indian farmer’s life. It perpetuates the idea that the farmer is the self-sacrificing provider of nourishment, sustenance and pleasure, with little rights. Akshay Kumar is interested in the one who consumes and his joys, and not in the one who produces and her travails. He wants to know how Modi, as India’s First Consumer, derives an intensely sensual joy.

Modi had an excellent opportunity to lift the interview from a trivial pursuit and to shift it from the ridiculous to the sublime. He could have spoken about something far more important—what the farmer gained from the mango he grew.

But that requires empathy and a sincere interest in the lives of others, which the prime minister is not necessarily known for, unless the individual concerned has been vetted and plays the role assigned. His interlocutors, including those who ask him questions, appear to be chosen carefully; he has avoided being ambushed by anyone who might ask him a serious question. Recall the lack of empathy, when the prime minister does not stop to ask after a reporter covering him who has got hurt; recall too how brusquely he has shoved aside people, from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to his own security detail, because they are between him and the camera.

Instead of showing sensitivity towards the plight of the farmers, Modi took the question at face value—it was about him, after all—and told a story from his childhood, about the kind farmer who doesn’t mind when poor children come to his farm to eat mangoes. The farmer is the compassionate giver, letting the kids take mangoes from his orchard; Everyone shares and adjusts.

Indeed, some farmers are like that. But equally, some get angry and bring out their stick and chase the kids. The image Modi has created of the farm is bucolic. It is found only in Bollywood movies, the reality Akshay Kumar is most familiar with. You can picture the image of Manoj Kumar singing mere desh ki dharti in Upkar, and more recently, the photo opportunity for Hema Malini, the BJP candidate in Uttar Pradesh, who re-enacted schmaltzy scenes as a farmer. Only Lakshmikant-Pyarelal’s music was missing.

The farmers’ reality is vastly different. Their land-holdings are small and their debt burden huge. Many farmers have no choice but to rely on their children, or get other poor children, to work on the farm. Mechanization is limited, electric supply often erratic, irrigation supply sometimes controlled by upper caste farmers who live further upstream. The vocation is a gamble with the monsoon. Once the crop is harvested, the middlemen step in. They pay low prices for the produce, and then blame the market or the government. Meanwhile, the state subsidizes the mollycoddled vocal urban consumers—those who get to eat those juicy mangoes—as ice cream, as smoothies, as milk shakes, in lassi, and in their raw form, in pickles.

Meanwhile, input costs rise. If there’s a bumper crop, the resulting glut crashes the procurement price, keeping the farmer impoverished. He then sees no hope. He is shocked when Modi announces the pointless ‘demonetisation’, sucking liquidity from the countryside, the effects of which are felt for months.

The farmer then marches to distant capitals—Mumbai and Delhi—demanding justice. After producing bags of fragrant rice and baskets of lush green vegetables, his feet are blistered; her back is sunburnt and sore. Should the price of onions rise, the government fears for its own survival, and so the farmers must bear the burden. Hundreds of farmers seek an end to their misery in a rope tied to a tree, a plunge in the well, or by swallowing poisonous insecticide.

But rather than reflecting on creating a more equitable system that ends the gross injustice to farmers, or figuring out ways to enable the farmer acquire skills to take up jobs, so that his family too can become consumers of the good life, in Modi’s anecdote, the farmer gives the fruits of his labour for free.

In the 1974 film Kunwara Baap, the chorus sings—aam se ham ko matlab, gutli se kya lena (Our interest is in the mango, not its seed). The seed is what remains, after the wealthier, urban India has sucked rural India dry, unaware of the devastated countryside.

May this election change this unfair exchange.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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