Slaps, shoes and suicides

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The slap on the agriculture minister’s face was not just an outburst. The angst was driven by deeper and more serious concerns

Devinder Sharma
Food Policy Analyst

Dead in vain Farmer suicides have evoked no response from politicians
Photo: Prashant Panjiar

THE DAY Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was slapped, Sharad Joshi and I were speaking at a national conference of farmers in Haridwar. A little after lunch, Swami Ramdev walked in to take his seat and apologised for being late. He said he was late because he had been responding to media questions on the ‘thappad’.

Pawar
Slap dash The assault on Pawar was symbolic
Photo: Vijay Pandey

The moment he said this, there was a round of applause. I think the clapping and cheering that followed was louder than the applause any one of us had received during and after our presentations. Meanwhile, the stream of messages on my mobile seemed never-ending. My twitter was flooded with messages. Although it is politically correct to condemn the incident, the fact remains that there was a sense of jubilation all around.

For a country reeling under unprecedented price rise, corruption and economic policies that benefit only 1 percent of the population, ‘the slap’ was an expression of the simmering anger and increasing frustration. While the more daring have picked up the gun against the inequalities being continuously perpetuated with impunity, the liberal and the educated in the urban centres too are getting restless.

It could have happened to anyone, including the prime minister.

The self-righteous ‘we know what we are doing’ kind of approach that ruling party politicians exhibit day in and day out smacks of arrogance. When spokespersons of political parties try to outwit each other on TV, it actually fuels disgust and anger against the political class. Even economists and specialists who are regulars on TV shows behave like committed voters, like crowds brought in buses to rallies.

For several years now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Pawar have been setting fresh deadlines for bringing down inflation. Chief Economic Advisor to the prime minister Kaushik Basu too has been making statements that have little relevance to the realities, clearly showing his finger is not on the pulse. Certainly, people are fed up and except for the media, no one takes these deadlines seriously. They know that the leaders are hiding their inability to stem the rot in the system and are refraining from a crackdown against the stockists, black marketers and speculators.

Roughly a year ago, I remember when I was asked by the media to respond to the UPA’s latest claim that food prices will ease by April. Although food inflation had risen to 17.87 percent for the week ending 20 February 2010, Basu was quoted as saying that food prices have come down, and the high inflation is because of the base effect. Analysts said that the April harvest would be crucial, and the pressure on inflation will ease after the new crop flows into the markets.

I made it clear that food inflation will not ebb after April. I wasn’t wrong. In fact, I went a step ahead and said that any strong government, if it wasn’t faced with the compulsions of coalition politics, would have removed the agriculture minister by now. He deliberately makes statements that have helped raise the prices of sugar and made India pay through its nose for wheat imports. The UPA therefore cannot wait any longer. It must get rid of Sharad Pawar, and you will see the prices coming down. But, will it? Even Sonia Gandhi had reportedly told a group of visiting farmers and activists that she is helpless when it comes to agriculture.

NONETHELESS, AFTER the slap, I was expecting some visible changes in the way the agriculture minister has been operating. But it’s business as usual for Sharad Pawar. In the midst of the logjam over FDI in retail, he said: “The critics are overlooking the fact that the policy’s main objective is to enhance the financial ability of the farmers who are responsible for the produce. If the farmers’ produce is directly lifted from the fields, with them receiving higher remuneration for it, why should there be any objections?” he asked. “It has always been my endeavour to address farmers’ interests.”

This is simply untrue. There is no empirical study that details the benefits that have accrued to farmers from Big Retail. Nor has Pawar, or for that matter his Cabinet colleague Anand Sharma, initiated any wider public discussion on the subject. Somehow, ministers have increasingly begun to believe that once they have been elected they have the right to do anything in the name of ‘inclusive growth’. The problem is that if the people protest outside Parliament, the media chastises them, saying street protests cause inconvenience. If parliamentarians protest inside, it is the wastage of public money. How and where do people express their dissent?

The UPA cannot wait any longer. It must get rid of Sharad Pawar, and you will see the prices coming down

This brings me to the ‘unhealthy’ and ‘undemocratic’ trend started by Jarnail Singh of hurling his shoe at Home Minister P Chidambaram. I am aware that it will be politically incorrect to admire the trajectory the shoe took. But notwithstanding what our political leaders believe, the fact remains that the nation is finding a simple way to express their anger. After all, there has to be an outlet for deep-rooted anger and disgust. If democracy provides no avenues for people to voice their concern, people will eventually find other ways to make their voice heard.

IF SHOE hurling and ‘the slap’ are undemocratic acts, is committing suicide democratic? In the 2004 General Elections, the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu witnessed a piquant situation when a farmer stood up in a political rally being addressed by him and drank pesticide. He died before he could reach the hospital. Imagine, if he had instead thrown a slipper at Naidu, it would have caused commotion in the crowd, and more attention to the cause for which he eventually died.

Not only Andhra Pradesh, farmers all over the country have tried to send a strong political signal by taking their own lives when all democratic norms failed. By committing suicide, they actually delivered what should be seen as a warning. They failed here too. The world’s largest democracy did not take notice. Since 1997, the National Crime Records Bureau tells us that over 2.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide.

I always thought that suicide was an undemocratic tool used by the voiceless. What puzzles me is why none of the political parties are taking it up as if it is a question of life and death. Nor is the media, which can depute some 450 journalists to cover the Lakme Fashion Week, or send an army of reporters to South Africa to cover the IPL. You have no regrets when farmers take their own lives but you certainly would have been furious and “want these perpetrators to be booted out of society” if they had instead thrown shoes. Imagine if the 2.5 lakh farmers had not died but instead flung footwear: wouldn’t it have been a more civilised form of angst?

Such arrogance and indifference in a democracy can’t go on for long. ‘The slap’ cannot be simply dismissed as the work of a mentally unstable person. It is an expression of growing anger among the masses. Let us not wait for an Arab Spring-type to force the Indian democracy to truly respond and represent the people. It is a question of the forgotten 99 percent.

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