Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Eco mess, climate of hate, Covid: Tough days ahead
Deccan Chronicle.| Sunanda K Datta Ray
The World Bank reckons that its share of the gross domestic product dropped from 43 per cent in 1967 to 16 per cent in 2019
Some 60 per cent of Indians who still depend financially on farming struggle with debt, bankruptcy and endemic suicide. (Representational Image/ DC File)
Once the scene of tumultuous protests and massive rallies, the Singhu border between Delhi and Haryana was deserted at the year’s end. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha firebrands who had roared defiance at the government were nowhere to be seen. Few remembered the 35-year-old farm worker whose hand was chopped off and his body was strung up on a barricade allegedly for desecrating the Sikh scriptures. The traffic to Jaipur flowed smoothly again. Even the police had left. With elections looming ahead in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bought peace by dropping the three controversial agricultural reform laws against which lakhs of farmers had rampaged for 15 months because they were thought to benefit influential corporations at the expense of the cultivators.
The dusty emptiness they left behind recalled the hollow men whose world ends not with a bang but a whimper. Over it hung a tantalising question mark. Why did Mr Modi, of the massive "56-inch chest" (as Union home minister Amit Shah again reminded listeners), not spurn his challengers? Could this first instance of the Prime Minister caving in to pressure mean that a new economic chapter will unfold in the new year? The prospect bears consideration.
Some of last year’s other images brought little comfort. Five former chiefs of staff of the armed forces and over a hundred prominent citizens reminded President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Modi of the saffron-draped savants baying for the blood of more than 200 million Muslims. They also warned of "a large number of persons [who] gathered in Delhi and publicly took an oath resolving to make India a Hindu nation, by fighting and killing if necessary", and that "more such seditious meetings are being organised in other places".
Resplendent in red and gold, his forehead massively smeared with vermillion, Kalicharan Maharaj, a Hindu preacher, was arrested for allegedly insulting Mahatma Gandhi.
Smoke billowing from rows of blazing pyres that consumed the bodies of countless Covid-19 victims will darken the communal Armageddon that is the nightmare of the future. How many corpses were burned or dumped in rivers we shall never know. How many more will die remains unclear as the Omicron variant threatens a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, defying a New Year’s Eve stirring of hope from South Africa. Safety precautions like social distancing and masks were "for the janata, not netas", as Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut pointed out. "Prime Minister Narendra Modi tells people to wear masks, but he himself doesn’t wear one… I follow the Prime Minister and do not wear a mask, and people don’t wear masks." It was tit for tat for West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who refused to cancel the Ganga Sagar mela, snapping at journalists: "Why are you interested in only the Ganga Sagar Mela, ask [about] Kumbh Mela!"
The globalisation of politics and personalisation of global developments ensured that attention didn’t stray too far or for too long from the gripping drama at home. American President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan plunged that unhappy land into even worse turmoil, but Pakistan and Kashmir almost reduced the Taliban into another Indian domestic terrorist gang. As for Mr Biden’s audacious bid to induct Australia into nuclear deterrence, it enraged France (which felt cheated out of a $65.7 billion deal), incensed China, and prompted Indonesia, Malaysia and even India to wonder whether a whites-only defensive core would dominate what former President Donald Trump called the "Indo-Pacific". Given his own megalomania, Mr Trump catered better to visiting egos as the 2019 "Howdy Modi" spectacular in Houston demonstrated.
Mr Biden’s handsome amends by making the Prime Minister one of 12 stellar speakers at his Summit for Democracy in December prompted NDTV’s researchers to report a massive surge in prosecutions against the National Democratic Alliance government’s political rivals, civil rights workers and even legal and bureaucratic critics. Some 570 cases were launched against them in contrast to the 85 by Dr Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance government. The UPA’s first seven years recorded an annual growth rate of 8.4 per cent; it was only 4.8 per cent during the NDA’s first seven years. But India reported the third highest number of billionaires worldwide, whose combined wealth of $596 billion was nearly double last year’s $313 billion.
The 100 richest Indians have never been richer with infrastructure tycoon Gautam Adani, who nearly tripled his fortune to $74.8 billion, in the second position for the third year running, and reportedly narrowing the gap with Reliance Industries fellow-Gujarati chairman Mukesh Ambani, whose $92.7 billion fortune makes him leader of the pack. Farmers who burned the effigies of the two tycoons as well as of Mr Modi fear that the new laws will somehow enable Mr Adani and Mr Ambani to muscle into agricultural marketing. Although there was little evidence to support their suspicions, Reliance’s telecom towers were vandalised, and hashtags like #BoycottReliance, #BoycottJio, and #BoycottAdani circulated on Twitter, alongside hashtags backing the farmers and demanding official support for guaranteed minimum prices that ensure a base level of profit for cultivators.
The Economist warned that "most alarmingly, in India some of the rich have become super-rich by using their heft to crush smaller competitors and thus corner multiple chunks of the economy. The tilt in fortunes has rewarded not so much technical innovation or productivity growth or the opening of new markets as the wielding of political influence and privileged access to capital to capture and protect existing markets."
The real problem is that the "Atma Nirbhar" Bharat, of which Mr Modi boasts and which resembles Jawaharlal Nehru’s import substitution but with a special role for big business, has failed to boost manufacturing. Slogans like "Make in India" and "Make for the World" have not improved capability or changed consumer preference. What Arvind Subramanian, Mr Modi’s former chief economic adviser, calls "new welfarism" is largely a populist distributive strategy to entice voters. Agriculture’s role has been shrinking for decades. The World Bank reckons that its share of the gross domestic product dropped from 43 per cent in 1967 to 16 per cent in 2019, while seeds, fertilisers and other essential inputs all cost more. Some 60 per cent of Indians who still depend financially on farming struggle with debt, bankruptcy and endemic suicide. They may present the government with its biggest challenge — after Covid-19 and the dangerous surge in aggressive religiosity — in the new year.
The silence at the Singhu border indicates a truce, not peace.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.