Coalition compulsions amid crony capitalism

Rahul Gandhi was not far wrong when he said earlier this week that compulsions of coalition politics were keeping food prices and inflation up.

But, given the reactions to his not-so-innocuous remarks, Gandhi might have been up against not just union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party but also Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and those others in the government who might want to keep the Gandhi-Nehrus at bay and from getting things too right or too people-friendly.

As I have mentioned elsewhere before, Dr Singh regards Pawar as one of his best ministers and is unwilling to listen to any criticism of the Maratha warlord. And while it is true that price rise is a collective responsibility, perhaps Dr Singh should begin to consider why it is that prices of only those crops that Maharashtra supplies in large numbers to the rest of the country should be rising over the past few years, as never before.

I agree with Sharad Joshi when he says, “Sharad Pawar is not the agriculture minister of India. He is the minister for co-operation.”

And by that Dr Joshi, a World Bank economist and the president of the Shetkari Sangathana, a farmers party, means that Pawar is working as agriculture minister to help only the co-operatives in Maharashtra of which the Maratha warlord is a doyen. I would stretch that to include traders and middlemen, too.

If Pawar is able to foretell a bumper sugarcane crop and is seeking to push for more sugar exports this year (to benefit the co-operatives), why is it that he did not spot the shortfall in onion production despite unseasonal rains in the region of Nasik, his fiefdom, which grows nearly 40 per cent of the Indian supplies of onion each year?

Perhaps, because in both cases, his priority was not the aam aadmi but the khaas ones: his cronies among the capitalists. Pawar is, of course, among the biggest sugar barons in this country and not just in the co-operative sector. No one in Maharashtra (and that includes private operators) has succeeded in getting a licence for a sugar factory until and unless Pawar wills it – and this includes governments spanning Deve Gowda’s United Democratic Front and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance which doled out the licences during their tenures in government. Ask Gopinath Munde and he will tell you how vulnerable he has been made as a political opponent by his possession of a sugar co-operative: he cannot undertake a single agitation against Pawar without putting his own sugar interests at risk. And if you have nothing to lose – or Pawar anything to gain – you just don’t get into not just a sugar co-operative but any agricultural produce in Maharashtra. Turn to the label of anything from Britannia butter to McDonald’s cheese, Nestle milk to all the dahis and fruit yogurts or even, Tropicana juices and Lipton iced teas, bar the home-grown brands of Mother Dairy of New Delhi, Amul of Gujarat and Vijaya of Andhra Pradesh, everything is either owned/produced or packed for by the Dynamix Dairy group, promoted by Pawar.

He had once told me, “Multinationals are here not for philanthropy but for profit. So we might as well make it impossible for them to do anything without us. We should be able to make gains out of their profits, too.”

So far as co-operatives and farmers go, one can at least argue that that philosophy ultimately benefits the grower/producer, if not the consumer. But that’s not all that Pawar’s up to, is it? I am surprised the Prime Minister, a reputed economist in his own right, is unable to see how Pawar does it: he just has to talk about a possible shortfall or seasonal vagaries affecting any sort of crop production (he’s the agriculture minister, see, and has good reason for that concern!) and that’s the traders’ cue: automatically the hoarding begins and sooner or later they make a killing.

So it is to be hoped that the steps the PM took this week by calling in both Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister P Chidambaram along with Pawar to check the rising prices has some salutary effect and lets the Maratha warlord know that others in the government are catching on to his shenanigans. I, at least, was greatly heartened by the fact that Chidambaram knocked down his proposal to export more sugar when previous shortfalls still need to be made good and old contracts honoured.

It is only intelligent interception like that which can defeat Pawar. For Pawar, otherwise, has the Congress in a bind. There was good reason why both the parties backtracked on their reactions to Rahul Gandhi’s comments. Gandhi was telling the truth but he does not have a government to run. His mother and Dr Manmohan Singh do. And after the mess they have made of Andhra Pradesh, they have only Maharashtra, among the richest of Indian states, to fall back on in the future.

Unfortunately, they are in coalition, again, with the NCP in Maharashtra and any fingering of Pawar could lead to a collapse of the alliance. Which neither the Congress nor the NCP has any stomach for at the moment. Pawar knows well enough that he will lose any and every election without the support of the Congress. And while the Congress might yet survive without the NCP, it will certainly lose at least the immediate election or two without Pawar to pull it off for them. So the country must continue to suffer enormous food inflation even as the relatively poor man’s meal of roti, pyaaz aur lasani (a chutney made out of garlic) steadily goes out of the reach of even the comparatively less poor people.

I used to, once upon a time, believe that Pawar, if nothing else, was a great administrator and an agricultural visionary. Now I am convinced that his vision is limited to only scoring self-goals and making personal gains. That, unfortunately, qualifies him to be the worst agriculture minister India has ever had. But the best traders could ever have dreamt of – and, crony or not, the delight of every middleman in this country!

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