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Rahul Gandhi's 'Are you serious?' moment

Rahul Gandhi needs lessons in economics and history

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

It takes exceptional gall for a leader of the Congress to call the Modi government a "suit-boot sarkar". The party that for 10 years ran the most corrupt government in India's history, that was in bed with every crony capitalist you could find and that got its just deserts at the hands of disgusted voters would like the country to forget contemporary history and look at the Modi government instead as a party for businessmen. Rahul Gandhi also forgets that the biggest land grab in India's history was operated by "suited-booted" people during his government's rule, under the garb of the scandal-ridden sham of creating special economic zones. And who was it who funded the Congress all these years if it was not "suited-booted" people?

Mr Gandhi also seems to forget Congress history. It was Indira Gandhi who amended the law to declare that farmers whose land was taken forcibly by the government could not get "compensation" from the government but only an "amount"- because all landowners were exploitative kulaks and, therefore, did not deserve proper compensation. Now those kulaks have become the builders of India for whom Mr Gandhi's heart bleeds. Going further back in history, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who put land acquisition beyond the pale of judicial review. Indeed Nehru told those who were being displaced to make way for the Hirakud dam that"if you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country". So when Mr Gandhi stands up to relaunch his political career with bleeding-heart posturing, it is time to ask the question that Robert Vadra posed to a reporter: "Are you serious?"

There are other questions that Mr Gandhi must answer. For while it is true that his party's government raised food procurement prices substantially, did it not also cause the rampant food inflation that his government failed to control, and, therefore, to lose its mandate? Indeed while he can rightly claim credit for the faster growth of agriculture during the Manmohan Singh years, he should be reminded that among the states that have recorded the fastest growth in agricultural output over the past decade are Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh - both ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The great disservice that Mr Gandhi has done is by casting the debate on forcible land acquisition in terms that suggest that the country does not need businessmen, that it does not need manufacturing, that it does not need physical infrastructure. Indeed he fails to understand that the reason why farming is uneconomical is because average land holdings have shrunk over the decades. That, in turn, is because this country has not created enough non-agricultural jobs, to take pressure off the land. Half the workforce slaves in the fields to generate one-seventh of gross domestic product (GDP); naturally, incomes from farming will be low and often not enough to keep body and soul together. You could address that by raising agricultural product prices, as Mr Gandhi seems to prefer, but that only helps farmers with a marketable surplus, which is a small minority. It also raises the cost of food for the poor, including agricultural labourers who do not own land. Pricing decisions have benefits and costs, and one should keep an eye on both.

There is no shortage of people who think that Mr Gandhi needs some basic lessons in politics. On the evidence provided by his third (or fourth or fifth …) major intervention in Parliament in 11 years, he also needs some lessons in elementary economics and in Congress history.

First Published: Tue, April 21 2015. 21:40 IST