IN A SCATHING attack on the Narendra Modi government for its handling of the farm sector in the country, top Congress leader and former Union Minister P Chidambaram today said the failure to increase MSP of crops and the "grave error" of demonetisation resulted in the "man-made calamity" responsible for farmer agitations across India.
Chidambaram, whose attack is so far the sharpest to have come from the Congress, and also the most reasoned, went directly for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's jugular when he wrote: "The holder of the highest political office promised a total loan waiver, why blame the farmers for demanding that the promise be implemented?"
After days of watching the government grappling with full-blown farmers' agitations in Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and some of its leaders seemingly either joining action on the sidelines, or trying to ride the wave for some photo-ops, most voices from the Congress have restricted themselves to shrill opposition in TV debates and oft-repeated homilies.
As a result, much of the opposition space was ceded to agriculture experts. So much so that often journalist-turned-activist-turned-Baba Ramdev admirer-turned-twitter-tv persona Devendra Sharma would appear on nine to ten channels a night to criticise the government in terms always measured lest they offend any ArunJaitley or Modi a little too much for comfort.
In such a scenario, Chidambaram's weekly column in a leading national daily has remained a voice of reason, though his own UPA government's conduct was often marred by the sins he accuses NDA of.
Calling the situation in the country "explosive," and conceding that agriculture remains the largest employer in India "despite its declining share in total output (GDP)," and thus "has primacy," Chidambaram said "the NDA government lost sight of this basic truth."
Ridiculing the country's Agriculture Minister, Chidambaram, himself a heavyweight in Indian politics, challenged the people to recall the name of the country's Agriculture Minister.
"The Minister of Agriculture, unchanged since May 2014, is a political lightweight with little clout within the government. How many of you can name Mr Sharad Pawar’s successor?" he said.
Reminding the BJP that it "had unequivocally promised that it would implement the M S Swaminathan Committee’s recommendation that MSP should be cost plus 50 per cent," he said, "The BJP not only reneged on its promise, it dealt a body blow to farmers by denying them even a reasonable increase in MSP in its first three years."
Refuting the argument that increase in MSP would have led to inflation, the former Finance Minister said that argument was "the height of folly."
"Some inflation is inevitable, and the government and the RBI must use other instruments to moderate inflation rather than reduce the farming community to penury," he added.
Chidambaram also came down heavily on demonetisation decision of Modi and unequivocally concurred with the view that Indian farm production has "entered deflation territory" and that the "proximate trigger clearly has been demonetisation."
He said the farmers cannot be blamed for seeking a loan waiver since it was the PM himself who announced that all loans of UP farmers will be waived if the BJP formed the government.
This, said Chidambaram, "has returned to haunt the BJP in several states."
Justifying the 2008 waiver announced by the UPA government, he argued that the fiscal situation then "was excellent, growth had found a new momentum, and a one-time loan forgiveness to small and medium farmers was justified."
"Having mounted a tiger, the BJP does not know how to dismount it. Meanwhile, the tiger is galloping through Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat," Chidambaram said.
Interestingly, while the BJP is staying away from the demonetisation debate and its leaders and minions no more sing hosannas to Modi's 'surgical strike' on economy lest people are reminded of their travails standing before ATM booths in serpentine queues, some loyal-than-the-king defenders of the regime are just not picking the hint. A day before Chidambaram's column appeared, economist Surjit S Bhalla, whose main job is to defend Modi in TV debates, exerted himself in the same newspaper to claim that demonetisation was indeed pushing India towards a cashless economy with less black money, and added, for good measure, "(Even) Your sixth-grade daughter will tell you (that.)"
Experts are now near unanimous that demonetisation heavily impacted the prices received during harvest price crash, and the fall in prices was generalised across agricultural commodities.
Making this argument in Indian Express, senior agriculture policy analyst Harish Damodaran, who was also quoted by Chidambaram, said, "(M)uch of the produce trading in India is cash-based and financed through a chain of mandi intermediaries, processors, input dealers and retailers...(T)his traditional agro-commercial capital was dealt a body blow by demonetisation."
(Read Punjab Today's report on farm unrest's link with demonetisation and the politics of the farm sector debate http://bit.ly/ptkeycon ).
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