For Farmers, Rahul Walks in Rajiv’s Footsteps
As photographs and news items fill the newspapers of Rahul Gandhi’s rail journeys and walking tours of states afflicted worst by farmers’ distress and his championing of the cause of farmers in the Lok Sabha, my mind races back to 1987, a comparable year of natural calamity that had the whole country reeling in agrarian crisis.
The major difference is that Rahul is only a leader of the Opposition; in 1987, his father was the Prime Minister. Notwithstanding the onerous demands on his Prime Ministership, Rajiv accorded his highest priority to touring the affected areas of the country, ranging from Kashmir and terrorist ridden Punjab, to Rajasthan and Gujarat and Maharashtra; out to Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Nagaland; and south to Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
There was not a single affected state or area that was left out. He was present whenever and wherever the farmer needed him most. In conspicuous contrast, the present Prime Minister is everywhere except where a farmer is to be found. He wanders far, wide and frequently all over the world - so did Rajiv - but unlike Rajiv he has no inclination to search out domestic distress. This is not only a question of poor time management; it also reflects the arrogance and heartlessness that are so characteristic of Modi, the man. The combination of drought and floods that hit the country from the summer of 1987 well into 1988 was traced to the El Nino effect. Fortunately, El Nino has never after hit us since quite so badly but even the lesser effect is having drastic consequences for our farmers because the Government is so slow-footed and so preoccupied with its alternative agenda of purloining the farmer’s land that, notwithstanding the agrarian crisis, it carries on with business as usual (the pun is intentional).
Rajiv’s first action when the crisis hit us in 1987 was to convene a meeting of Chief Ministers in New Delhi on September 3 to secure their suggestions and the endorsement of a draft Action Plan that had been prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture. Although current distress has been on the public radar for several months, Modi has been too preoccupied taking cruises on the Seine to find time to concert the efforts of the Central and State governments to bend the national will of the nation as a whole to taking the steps required to mitigate and overcome the natural disasters that have combined to hit the nation in its solar plexus. Instead of action, his agriculture minister waffles in Parliament and so aggravates the Opposition with his non sequiturs that all of them walk out in protest. Meanwhile, Modi applauds his minister for his oratory. This government is completely out of touch with the national mood. Before we come to the extraordinary achievements of the 1987 Rajiv Action Plan, let us first recall the clarion call that Rajiv Gandhi sounded at that gathering of chief ministers.
He said that we were faced “with the most serious challenge” as “1987 has brought a drought which is truly exceptional” - just as 2015 is faced with a “truly exceptional” and “serious” challenge. He stressed that “the rains have been seriously deficient in large parts of the country” and added that “in some States (he had Rajasthan, in particular, in mind) this is the third or even fourth consecutive year of drought.” He underlined the point that “this year’s drought is comparable to the drought of 1965” - the worst till then since Independence. He went on to say that “we cannot meet it (the drought) with routine responses” as “the situation calls for a total mobilization of national will.”
Have we heard anything comparable from the present Prime Minister? And unlike the present Prime Minister, instead of confining himself to alliterations, acronyms and slogans, Rajiv Gandhi presented the Chief Ministers with an Action Plan for Drought and Flood Relief to deal with issues of “employment, drinking water and fodder”. He then set out specific steps to meet the challenge: maximize output in the coming season “by providing our farmers with the inputs they need”; organize relief works “oriented” towards both “providing employment” as also “ensuring a degree of droughtproofing in the affected areas”; off-setting the shortfall in hydroelectric power generation by “special efforts to step up thermal generation”; and “use our public distribution system to the fullest advantage”.
These major measures were in addition to measures already taken, such as rescheduling loans; providing funds for drinking water; advance release of funds for rural employment works (Rajasthan received in just one year funds equal to the previous forty years for employment relief); and additional imports of edible oils. He urged both central and state governments to rise to the occasion and asked for “close and continuous cooperation between them” so that “employment in rural areas” is assured; “wages must be distributed regularly and in full”; “strict vigilance against malpractices”; and “effective management for work programmes” for “several million people”. That is how a government that works, works! He then visited state after state, usually driving himself for hundreds of miles from earliest dawn to long after the sun had set to see for himself what ground action was being taken. Thereafter, till well past midnight, he would meet with State officials and ministers to review their work and make course corrections. These were never general, broad reviews, but detailed, micro-exercises that kept officialdom on their toes and sent an unmistakable signal that their every move was being monitored. I saw all this with my own eyes for I was invariably on all these tours.
The result? India’s cereals production soared from 113 million tonnes in calendar year 1988 to 36 million tonnes the following year - the single largest increase in annual output ever scored in India’s agricultural history. It signally contributed to India’s growth rate in 1988-89 crossing the double-digit mark for the first and only time in India’s economic history - 10.67 per cent! Not even once during the entire post-reforms period have we come close to beating that record. That is what is meant by rising to a national challenge, not traveling to distant shores to spew rubbish about “Scam India” and “Skill India” while the country reels under rain and hail damage. Rahul is walking in his father’s footsteps.
He does not have the power that Rajiv had as PM. But from his place on the Opposition benches, Rahul is doing what our PM should be doing - reaching out to the farmers in their homes and their mandis to understand what the krishak and the khet mazdoor are facing, and coming up with practical solutions to practical problems. Modi spends his time not in solidarity with the farmer but in spinning around salubrious climes, in a kind of frenzy over “have ‘plane, will travel”.
Do you now see why farmers’ suicides have reached levels undreamt of even in the terrifying drought of 1987? We had a caring Prime Minister then. We have now in his son a caring leader of the Opposition. But in the Prime Minister we have a callous, self-absorbed failure, quite unworthy of the position to which he has been pitch-forked: “if you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
(The author is a senior Congress leader and MP in the Rajya Sabha)