That ’70s show

Recent events in Bhatta-Parsaul, twin villages in the Greater Noida area adjoining New Delhi where land has been acquired for building the Agra highway, have kick-started the Congress’ campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of 2012. It began when Rahul Gandhi accused the Mayawati government of “state oppression” and said “people were being murdered… women had been raped”.

He spoke of “a large, 70-foot (mound of) of ashes there, with dead bodies inside”.
It now appears the mass graves and mass rapes were exaggerated. The Congress’ impressionable general secretary probably believed the bush telegraph a little too easily, and went to the media without doing due diligence. Nevertheless, his party has backed his philosophy if not quite his sense of detail. Efforts to somehow prove Mr Gandhi right are being persisted with. The National Commission for Women claims women in Bhatta-Parsaul were stripped naked and bodies burnt in public view.
There is no doubt violence occurred in Bhatta-Parsaul. The Uttar Pradesh police and the Provincial Armed Constabulary — which has an infamous history going back to the times when the Congress won massive majorities in the state — do not have exemplary human rights records. Yet, is Mr Gandhi correct in presenting a decidedly one-sided picture? After all, he is not a provincial hothead. He is a national figure, with a multi-state appeal, and hoping to lead a government in New Delhi. Given this, how should one assess his politics and rhetoric?
In the past week, Mr Gandhi took a delegation of Bhatta-Parsaul village folk to the prime minister’s house. This is not a privilege Dr Manmohan Singh accords every protester, whether the farmer in Jaitapur (Maharashtra) or that indomitable lady fasting against decades of genuine state oppression in Manipur. It helps, one supposes, to have a benefactor who chooses to adopt you.
Speaking to the media outside Dr Singh’s residence, Mr Gandhi said, “What I am concerned about is how we are treating our own people. Most of the people in that room said that they are more than happy to give their land for development. Most of them said that if a road is being built, we have no problem, we will give our land. And most poor people are of that view. Most poor people want development in this country and they are ready to sacrifice”.
It is necessary to analyse this complex, blockbuster statement. It romanticises poverty, or at least the fact of being poor. It implies poor people — a definition that now encompasses land-owning farmers living a short distance from the national capital — are virtuous and, by suggestion, well-off urban residents are not. As such, the latter need to salute the innate wisdom and morality of the countryside.
The good people of Bhatta-Parsaul are willing to “give” their land “if a road is being built”. Mr Gandhi then expands and extrapolates this generosity of spirit to the entire country: “Most poor people are of that view. Most poor people want development in this country and they are ready to sacrifice”.
Sacrifice? Sacrifice? Why should anyone sacrifice anything? What prevents Mr Gandhi and his party bringing in a system that promises the farmer a fair price for his land, without acquisition by the state and by state governments that play middle-men? What stops him advocating transparent benchmarks for “change of land use” as a first step towards establishing a genuine land market that farmers can benefit from?
The use of the word “sacrifice” has another implication. Not only will the farmer be deprived of his land, it goes, he will almost by definition not gain from the land being converted into a highway and enhancing access to distant urban centres. In short, anything other than a framework that keeps him cocooned in his village should be considered a sacrifice.
What if one juxtaposed this world view with the words Mr Gandhi used at a Congress meeting in Varanasi a few days ago? “Bhatta-Parsaul was just the beginning”, he said, “see what we do in the future. We will fight from every village”.
Three things stand out. First, in its language and in the political economy it is promoting in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is completely oblivious to the aspirations of contemporary India. Without justifying Ms Mayawati’s brazenness, crony capitalism and North Korea-style statues, the fact is Mr Gandhi is not offering a more inspiring alternative.
The Congress insists all of Uttar Pradesh’s problems are due to 20 years of identity politics. As such much of the rest of the country — Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, even Andhra Pradesh and Orissa — is passing it by. How then will glorifying often subsistence farming, romanticising the village and presenting the construction of highways as a “sacrifice” rather than a straightforward entitlement help matters? This is Daridra Narayan-Raj Narain socialism right out of the 1970s.
Second, oppositional politics for the sake of oppositional politics is tempting and can deliver short-term dividends. It helped Mamata Banerjee in Singur, and Mr Gandhi is attempting to replicate the formula in Uttar Pradesh.
There is a difference though. In 2007-08, Ms Banerjee was the ultimate outsider. She had never been in power in West Bengal and was far from being considered establishment. Her argument that she would have handled the issue of development more sensitively and was not responsible for Bengal’s mess was persuasive. In contrast, if religion and politics have been the only industries in Uttar Pradesh for most of India’s Independent history, can Mr Gandhi and the political legacy he represents disown responsibility?
Third, for a man who is the face of India’s “natural party of governance”, Mr Gandhi has been remarkably silent about the gun-fight that sections of protesters began in Bhatta-Parsaul. Two policemen were killed and the district magistrate shot at and injured. This has been used to partially explain — though it can obviously never justify — any subsequent police overreaction. However, that is beside the point.
If some of the protesters — motivated by politicians and maybe rival real estate developers — were armed and firing bullets at the law, then where does it leave the story of unilateral and unprovoked “state oppression”? Perhaps the question lies buried under that 70-foot mound of ashes in Bhatta-Parsaul.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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