Feroze Varun Gandhi: ‘We’ve gone from medievalism to post-modernism without really having a civilisation in between’

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Feroze Varun Gandhi attempts to correct the ill effects of historical processes through his tome on rural distress

A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India’s Future through Her Villages |  Feroze Varun Gandhi | Rupa | Rs 995 | 825-page

A ROSE, THIS great-grandson of Nehru wears not, but accused of rural ignorance he shall never be. Not after Feroze Varun Gandhi weighs in with A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India’s Future through Her Villages (Rupa; Rs 995), an 825-page doorstopper of a book with over 330,000 words of text riddled with charts and graphs enough to leave even the most data-inclined somewhat goggle-eyed. As a politician, the 38-year-old represents UP’s Sultan-pur constituency in the Lok Sabha for the BJP, but as an author, he would rather draw upon his education in economics—at the University of London’s SOAS, most recently—to speak for farmers across India.

At his Jor Bagh home in Delhi just a couple of days after thousands of them surged through the streets of the city as part of a Kisan Mukti Morcha protest, Gandhi traces the origin of his book—this call for ‘a national conversation on rural distress’—to his parliamentary debut in 2009, when he won UP’s Pilibhit seat and asked for his salary to be donated to a family he’d pick of a farmer who’d committed suicide. “I thought it was a step in the right direction,” he says, “albeit a very small one.” After the 2014 General Election, a friend and he came up with an ‘economic model’ that took up such parameters as a farmer’s debt-to-asset ratio, crop loss frequency, water access and weather vulnerability to predict what circumstances could possibly push one to the verge of taking his or her own life. It was while putting this formula to a ground test, which involved identifying 4,872 suicidal farmers (who he claims to have aided with Rs 1 crore of his own plus Rs 29 crore by way of crowd-funds), that Gandhi was confronted by a thought: “Whether you help five farmers or 5,000, it’s still a drop in the ocean. If you’re looking to help 500 million people, you can only do so by influencing government policy, and to influence it, you have to understand it—where it has gone wrong, the syntax of a village, why is it that certain schemes have gone awry, that people are leaving their villages, that water scarcity is happening, that land is going bad.” So for the next whole year, he says, he went around listening to farmers across 62 districts in 11 states of India, and only once he was sure he’d grasped what needed to be done did he do this book. “It is an attempt to correct a lot of historical processes that have led to this situation today,” says Gandhi, “See, this is not a ‘Mother India’ kind of idyllic book, this is based on the fact that the village can no longer exist as a viable economic unit.”

With farming costs having risen above earnings, by and large, that’s no exaggeration. But it’s not exactly a crisis lost on India, is it? “Whenever we look at [the farm sector], we see fiscal pundits decrying the sops given to agriculture, whether it’s loan waivers, right to food, etcetera,” he says, “We see them pooh-poohing it, saying, ‘God, this is just incentivising anarchy, making sure these people remain lazy’.” From 1952 to 2015, farms which support over half this country’s livelihoods have barely got a fifth of all debt relief, he argues, while India’s 40 top corporate houses that employ just “0.02 per cent of all people” have got four-fifths of the pie, a sign of “how terribly unequal the conversation has been” all along. “I support loan waivers, but they’re a stopgap arrangement,” he says, “Ultimately, we need to look at the economics of increasing farmer incomes.”

“It’s not a ‘Mother India’ kind of idyllic book. It’s based on the fact that the village can no longer exist as a viable economic unit”

Gandhi cites a flurry of numbers, from the tiny fraction that farmers get of what retail consumers pay for farm output to the acute dearth of storage facilities, to advocate mandi reforms. In his book, he highlights direct deals struck by farmers—collectively, in the case of marginal ones—with big buyers as a way to help the worst-off out of their ‘Hobbesian’ lives. All of this, though, like most of what his book offers, has been a standard part of the reform trope for decades now. Market forces are eventually expected to resolve some of this, aren’t they? His book talks of farms being not just at the mercy of climate change and erratic rain, but also ‘exposed to market signals that it hasn’t been prepared for’; it even features the dramatic story of a 2012 guar price spike caused by America’s oil-fracker boom that left Rajasthan’s growers of this gum high and dry. So, might opening up the rest of India’s economy have done farmers a bad turn in some ways?

“This book is ideology neutral,” replies Gandhi, “The problems that are ideological are minimal compared to those that are functional.” He’d rather talk of how the uneven legacy of British irrigation coverage has meant cotton farmers in Gujarat survive soaring input costs while those in Vidarbha kill themselves. Likewise, on the oddity of his book having nothing to say about India’s stance on World Trade despite his refrain that no village is an island unto itself, he waxes statistical on Bangladesh as an example of a country that has found its competitive edge (in textiles). As for his views on corporate farming, he prefers to talk of Punjab’s stubble burners who’d rather pay Rs 2,500 per hectare as a fine than Rs 6,000 to process it (which he reckons farm collectives would find worthwhile).

Gandhi’s most elegant swipe-aside, though, is on the extent to which he thinks age-old Indian practices could hold the country’s rural sector back. Quoting the ancient text Krishi Parasa in a section on India’s tardy adoption of technology, his book mentions the classic wooden plough as an object of worship. Hmmm… but what about other traditions of far greater relevance that persist, what with ageing bovine herds now being let loose across the land once their fodder costs exceed milk earnings? “A cow or a buffalo or a bull produces 30-40 kilos of gobar a day. If we were to look at gobar gas plants in each village, I predict these animals would then be seen as productive. The level of energy access would rise dramatically.” He sees the Centre’s Ujjwala scheme of gas cylinder distribution as a good but over-centralised measure. “The problem is that centralisation of schemes leads to a lack of [identification of] what their subjects could really make do with,” he says.

“If rural India continues to collapse into nothingness or be sucked up in these sprawling metros, urban India is going to collapse. It's a lose-lose situation”

Poverty has its own exigencies. “When you have under two bighas of land, neither can you earn, nor can you eat... because you don’t have enough labour between your own two shoulders to till the farm, you can’t afford agricultural labour, and it is awkward for you to go work on somebody else’s farm, which is why I have advocated using MNREGA to raise [rural] incomes by paying farmers to till their own land,” says Gandhi, referring to one of the few ideas in his manifesto that strikes me as equally original and doable. He wants the tasks undertaken by the scheme to go by what its beneficiaries want done, not their local overlords. ‘Overzealous local administration can distort asset quality,’ he writes on page 559 (quoting a Shah & Mistry study of 2012), ‘The construction of 250,000 boribunds in Gujarat, post an announcement by the CM in 2009-10, under less than ideal conditions, led to 85 per cent of assets rendered useless within a short span of time.’

The other idea he squarely wants adopted is ‘a regular unconditional basic income’ for the poverty stricken, though he has no waffle-free answer on whether farmers are justified in feeling cheated over Minimum Support Prices for their crops. “One has to look at two things. Marginal agriculture as of today is not viable, so when you increase MSPs, you have to look at this as a step in the right direction, but also have to do other things,” he says. Kerala has decentralised its debt relief, for instance, while Chhattisgarh has fixed its ration system. “There is a strong streak of decentralisation [that runs] through the book.”

Overall, “I’m looking at a system paradigm shift in the way we look at not just agriculture, but at rural India,” says Gandhi, launching into a kind of town-hall speech, “Why does one section of society have to slave away so that others can be comfortable? I see a win-win situation. [But] if rural India continues to collapse into nothingness or be sucked up in these sprawling metros, urban India is going to collapse—it’s a lose-lose situation.” “It’s not us-versus-them.” His next book will look at Indian cities, part of a trilogy to be capped with a tome on people’s movements. There’s just so much to say. “We’ve gone from medievalism to post- modernism without really having a civilisation in between,” he sighs.

GANDHI OFTEN SPEAKS with an abiding sense of gloom, as it comes across, the sort that seems to hover over his poetry. ‘I’ve taken off my mask/ It was starting to bleed,’ he wheezes in Stillness, a 2015 collection that bears more than a hint of an existential unease with politics. This was some six years after an alleged ‘hate speech’ that he was charged with having delivered on his campaign trail in Pilibhit.

That was a tough episode to live down, he admits. He was exonerated of all charges in court and got apologies from six channels that aired the offensive video—which was found to have had 63 cuts, he says. “I sent the CD to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Hyderabad, and it said ‘There’s a zero per cent voice match’.” This, he could say again. “I have a very soft voice,” he adds, “If you hear the person [in the clip], he sounds like someone with a very deep husky voice... I wish I had that voice, but I sadly don’t.” Okay, so let’s put it down to a vicious voiceover then. “In that speech,” he goes on, keen to clarify his actual words, “I’m saying there’s a man called Ram Narayan Singh, and he fights this election on a CPI-ML ticket, and he fights for the sake of fighting; he doesn’t fight to win. So, ‘Instead of wasting your vote, vote for someone who’s going to win so that they owe you and work in your area.’ In Hindi, I said, ‘Vote katuay ko vote mat doh, joh jeetne ke liye lad raha hai, usko doh, taaki aapka ehsaan rahe aur baad mein aap ke liye kaam kare.’ The [fake] speech shows me saying, ‘Katuay ko vote mat doh’—which means something completely, you know… blasphemous.”

Unlike most politicians who let their cases drag on, Gandhi adds, he pursued it till the very end. “I fought my case myself. I went to court, I went 61 times over two years. I won my case, I won it fair and square; everybody had to apologise,” he says. And then, almost as if expecting one from me, “Ever since I joined politics, my politics has shown a consistent streak of progressive instincts, so I think it’s very foolish for somebody to think that for ten years in politics I conducted myself in this manner and that one day I just had an off day.”

Still, perceptions persist that he’s in search of a ‘position’ to make his own in Indian politics, no? “It’s a very stupid question,” he retorts, indignant at the very suggestion that his manifesto may be part of an image projection exercise. “There’s a large part of me that’s academically inclined. I like to explore issues, look at solutions,” he says, hopeful that his Rural Manifesto shall serve as reference material even half a century hence. “My writing has often been called ‘centre-left’ and this book reflects that. And when I look at India, it’s apparent that we’re a poor country; it’s also apparent we’re a supremely talented country…. We need to put both ends of the spectrum together in a way that is not only syncretic and inclusive, but also in a way that works.” And with that synoptic echo of 1947 Nehru (and 1980 Indira), we call our conversation to a conclusion.