And yet, India stood tall because of free speech and tolerance, underpinned by an independent judiciary. GoI’s latest backlash to criticism and the ongoing farmer protests may be blurring this distinction. The timing is bad, as companies seek alternative countries for investments, after growing mistrustful of China. This altering perception about India could kneecap any hope that the government has of steadily increasing international manufacturing and exports, a fillip it needs to ensure its youth have jobs and its economy can expand to $5 trillion.
On paper, GoI’s various plans from production-linked incentive (PLI) schemes, to raising foreign holdings in insurance, to the sale of public assets are saying India is friendly and open for business. And yet, the wariness with which it is treating protesting farmers, shows it in many quarters as unfriendly and insular.
Punjab’s farmers, relatively well-off, were the first to protest the hastily passed farm Bills. After failing to get much attention, they marched to the Delhi border and set up camp. Every day, they distributed food, clothing and tents among themselves and the nearby community, in the cold. All while Delhi’s political class seemed to hope to browbeat them from their heated rooms. More than 60 farmers have reportedly died during the protests since November.
Many plain-speaking farmers have dismissed allegations of secessionist funding, picked holes in the new laws, and cited alleged bias to crony capitalists. Many of India’s farmers from nearby states started joining the protest. They shooed away pliant media, and ran a parallel universe of information on YouTube. The gathering was only ever maligned after a group of protesters turned violent on a single day — Republic Day — leading to casualties, injuries and an ugly turn.
The State machinery seized on this by limiting access — both digital and physical. It cauterised mobile signals and utilities, put up barricades, cemented long nails into the road and rolled barbed wire on the perimeter, garrisoning thousands of farmers. Now, more farmer groups have gathered, some blocking highways, others planting flowers around their sites. They say they intend to stay until their demands are met. Their perceived determination — stubbornness for many — is garnering attention.
It has found a voice in a global female pop icon, a teenage climate activist, other Western influencers and many among the Indian-origin diaspora, mostly on social media. India’s establishment, masterful with social platforms, should have blunted this perception of indifference to farmers. Instead, it has asked Twitter to gag several handles. In Parliament, it belittled protesters by crafting the label ‘professional protesters’ who are like ‘parasites’. Law enforcers used sedition laws to discourage naysayers. Farmer concerns have now taken backstage and the Indian government’s response is centrestage.
In a world united by social platforms, there are no boundaries, only lasting impressions. A single voice can become, like it or not, a movement, be that #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter. Governments don’t get to decide the direction a hashtag will take nowadays, people do. In a polarised world, India’s farmer protest is fast looking like that underdog.
It can be argued none of this matters for the economy, because China was successful in attracting investments throughout the 1990s despite its hardline reputation. And so, India will get by too. Times have changed. The attractive labour cost arbitrage of those days has diminished with robotic manufacturing and automation. Back then, there was also no Twitter. There still isn’t in China.
India, though, is among the world’s largest markets for social platforms, shaping public discourse and international perception. A world where these platforms are often more influential voices than governments. Soft power matters. India is also no China which, as the world’s second-largest economy, can afford to baulk at others, for a while. We are trying to crawl out of the biggest economic setback we have seen, and we need more investments and bilateral trade, not international pushbacks and a bad name. Ultimately, to be able to shrug our shoulders, we need to be a bigger economy.
India’s only shot at dissolving this crisis and staying in the game is to be seen doing the right thing. GoI may do well by wooing its farmers, before it loses the chance to woo the world.
The writer is founder, Content Pixies