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The Slap That Failed To Shake The Nation

By Devinder Sharma

05 December, 2011
Ground Reality

The day Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar received ‘the slap’ I and Sharad Joshi were speaking at a national conference of farmers in Haridwar. A little after lunch, Swami Ramdev walked in to take his seat on the dais and expressed his apologies for being late. He said he was late because he had got busy responding to media questioning on the thappad.

The moment he gave out the news of the ‘the slap’ 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 too was flooded with congratulatory messages. I am aware that howsoever we may strongly condemn the incident, which was the politically correct thing to do, the fact remains that there was a sense of jubilation all around.

For a country reeling under an unprecedented price rise, corruption and economic policies that benefit only 1 per cent of the population, ‘the slap’ was an expression of the simmering anger and increasing frustration. While the more daring have picked up the gun (in the Maoist-affected areas) against the inequalities being continuously perpetuated with impunity, the liberal and the educated in the urban centres too are getting restless. I agree with Shobha De when she says ‘this is not about Sharad Pawar. He just happened to be the man at the receiving end of the most recent slap’.

It certainly could have happened to anyone, including the Prime Minister.

Blame for being politically incorrect, but the self-righteousness and ‘we know what we are doing’ kind of approach that ruling party politician exhibit day in and day out smacks of arrogance. The tu-tu-main-main that follows daily on the TV shows have turned into the biggest soap operas where the spokesperson of all political parties simply try to outwit the other to establish his/her shirt is cleaner than the other’s. Not realising that every prime time TV show actually helps build up the disgust and anger against the political class.

Not only the politicians, even the economists and the specialists who are regulars on the TV shows behave like the committed voters like the people political parties bring in to listen to leaders at political rallies. They know what is expected of them, and they deliver it faithfully. I am sure if they were to be ferried to a Congress rally, they would shout Congress Zindabad. The next time, if the BJP is in power, you can expect them to shift gears and not shy from raising BJP Zindabad slogans. Similarly, in the studio they know what is expected from them, and deliver it faithfully to get their fifteen seconds of fame. It is very rare to see an expert on a TV show who speaks from conviction and is basing his analysis on ground realities.

Nevertheless, returning back to food inflation, for several years now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Food & Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar have been setting fresh deadlines for bringing down inflation. Chief Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister Dr Kaushik Basu too has been making statements which have little relevance to the realities and which clearly show that his finger is not on the right nerve. 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 stockist, black marketers and speculators.

Roughly a year back, I remember when I was asked by the media to respond to the UPA government's latest claim that food prices will ease by April. Although food inflation has risen to 17.87 per cent for the week ending Feb 20, 2010, Kaushik Basu was quoted as saying that the food price 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. 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 Food & 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. I wasn’t wrong. Even Sonia Gandhi had reportedly told a group of visiting farmers and activists that she is helpless when it comes to agriculture.

However, a few days after the thappad incident, I was expecting some visible changes in the way Agriculture Minister has been operating. But nothing seems to have changed. It is 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 did Sharad Pawar or for that matter his Cabinet colleague Anand Sharma has held any wider public discussions on the subject. Somehow, ministers have increasingly begun to believe that once they have 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 people express their dissent?

And this brings me to another burning issue that many felt was an ‘unhealthy' and 'undemocratic' trend. I am talking of the spate of editorials on Jarnail Singh's bold initiative a few years back of hurling his shoe at Mr P Chidambaram, the Home Minister. I am aware that it will be politically incorrect to admire the trajectory the shoe took. But notwithstanding what our political leaders (and the so called enlightened media) believe, the fact remains that the nation is finding it a simple way to express their anger. After all there has to be an outlet for a 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’ is undemocratic, is committing suicide democratic? In the 2004 general elections (correct me if I am wrong), the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Mr 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 his chappal at Mr Naidu. It would have caused commotion in the crowd, and more attention to the cause for which he eventually died.

Not only in Andhra Pradesh, farmers all over the country have tried to send a strong political signal by taking their own lives. Over the years, when all democratic norms failed to draw attention, they took their own lives. By committing suicide they actually delivered what should be seen as a powerful statement. 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 being used by the voiceless to make their voice heard. But what puzzles me is that why none of the political parties are taking it up as if it was a question of life and death (which you will agree, it is). After all, people are taking the extreme fatal step as an expression of their anger. I always wondered why the enlightened media, which can depute some 450 journalists to cover the Lakme Fashion show, or send an army of reporters and cameramen to cover the IPL cricket in South Africa (as if it is a Mahabharata battle), are not even moved to take up the issue of farmers committing suicide.

Come to think of it. Wasn't it undemocratic on the part of the politicians as well as the media (which never tires of telling us that it is the Fouth Estate) to ignore human suffering in the crop fields? Media has no regrets when the farmer took their own lives but it 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 their chappals/jutis, wouldn't it have been a more civilised form of angst?

Please do not get me wrong. I am not advocating throwing shoes to be a democratic form of dissent. But at the same time, I want you to think, and think deeply, as to why this democracy finds nothing disturbing when farmers kill themselves in order to draw the attention of powers that be to their plight. Such arrogance and indifference in a people’s democracy can’t go on for long. “The slap’ and the chappal 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 to force the Indian democracy to truly respond and represent the people. It is a question of the forgotten 99 per cent.

An edited version of this article appeared in Tehelka magazine, Dec 10, 2011.
Slaps, shoes and suicides http://bit.ly/tu7vOH

Devinder Sharma is a food and agriculture policy analyst. His writings focus on the links between biotechnology, intellectual property rights, food trade and poverty. His blog is Ground Reality




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