India’s farmers and geopolitics

In principle, India’s potential to become as a world class power is huge. The Mughal Empire at its height held about 25 percent of global GDP, just short of the Chinese Qing Dynasty’s 35 percent. Undoubtedly, these Asian giants, India and China, may once-again become giants of the global economy. However, as of today, India has a long way to go and the question can be set, how does India get there?

India’s strategic notability

Anyway, India is rapidly becoming one of the most strategically significant countries in the world. With a vast population of 1.3 billion, it is now the anchor of the western “Indo-Pacific” framework, a vision that, as the recent declassified White House papers (Trump Administration) set out, seeks to promote the “rise of India” as a counterweight to China. 

On the other hand, China and India are border neighbours, having about 3400km common borderline and Russia – India cooperation has been close and active for tens of years, especially in the branch of Russian arms sales to India. Today China and India have faced a number of various border clashes and Russia has problems with US sanctions which cover also Indian companies trading with Russia. However, a large mass of cooperation networks is binding them (China, Russia, India) together like SCO, RIC, ASEAN, APEC, BRI, EAEU, BRICS etc.

White House Report

The recent White House Report “the US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” said that “India’s preferred partner on security issues is the United States. The two cooperate to preserve maritime security and counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia and other regions of mutual concern. India maintains the capacity to counter border provocations by China.”

India, the report said, remains preeminent in South Asia and takes the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security, increases engagement with Southeast Asia, and expands its economic, defense and diplomatic cooperation with other US allies and partners in the region. “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,” the document said.

The document also said the US objective is to accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and major defense partner; solidify an enduring strategic partnership with India underpinned by a strong Indian military able to effectively collaborate with the US and its partners in the region to address shared interests.

Political stakes in farmers’ protests

The political stakes of the ongoing Indian farmers’ protests are huge regarding geopolitical consequences, as the US seeks to promote the rise of India to counterbalance China. Connected to this question are the months-long protests outside and inside New Delhi by farmers who oppose new agricultural laws which seek to reshape India’s economy by removing government-set minimum prices for certain crops. It would massively expand the market but would destroy the local, small producers. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a radical reformer, who has sought to consolidate India’s development in the name of nationalism and increasingly illiberal means. In supporting him, the Biden administration is poised to drive India’s development forward and viewing all this through a strategic lens. However, these farmers show no interest in backing down until the laws are repealed in their entirety, not even delayed. Consequently, India’s own future lies within the outcome of this standoff.

India is primarily an agricultural nation, more than 40% of people in India work in agriculture. There are big cities but a great deal of the country still finds sustenance and livelihood through localized farming communities. This is due to the legacy of the British Raj regime, which was to forcibly deindustrialize the country in order to transform it into a “breadbasket” for Britain’s own food supplies. This has posed long-term damaging consequences for India’s own development, which has to create a painful transition from being an agricultural nation into an industrial and consumer one.

The three new farming laws were brought in summer 2020. They loosen the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – which means farmers can sell directly to private buyers, instead of government-controlled markets where they get a minimum guaranteed price. The government says the changes will leave farmers better off by making markets more efficient and attracting more investment. After months of farmers’ protests and rioting, in January India’s supreme court put the laws on hold “until further notice”.

By removing the borderline minimum price for agricultural goods and state-backed auctions, Modi envisions the complete liberalization of the food market to allow bigger competitors to join in. This would facilitate mass production and increase supply, making food in India cheaper, more affordable and more accessible, bringing about the kind of grocery consumerism seen in the West. However, it would effectively end the livelihoods of local farmers and landowners in favour of mass corporatized farming, which would be able to undercut these small producers in terms of price.

As a result, farmers have taken to the capital city for months and rebelled against the government, protests that have often turned violent. Despite this, the West has been on the side of Modi, illustrating what is at stake geopolitically in this conflict. The Biden administration offered open support to the Indian government recently, irrespective of the fact that New Delhi has sought to censor social media, has imposed internet shutdowns around Delhi and has used force against the protesters. This illustrates just how important India’s successful development is to the United States and why agricultural reforms constitute a “keystone” of the country’s pathway forwards. India is ordained to be a counterweight to China but, if it remains in a quasi-agrarian state, this is difficult.

In addition, the US will also be eying India up for its own agricultural exports. This marks a continuity from the Trump administration. Given its large population, the demand for food in India is huge, but at present the protectionist system of agriculture means that America cannot export there at competitive prices. The three agriculture reform laws passed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in September are set to change that and promise a huge market for American farmers.

Sensitive situation – geopolitical consequences

As an indication, how sensitive the present situation is, just a couple of posts in social media set off a firestorm of controversy and outcry across India, when, in early February, a Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and US pop singer Rihanna posted some support messages for India’s protesting farmers. Obviously, they could not understand in what kind of geopolitical fuss they were sticking their noses. Each great power has a finger in the same pie.

The political stakes of these protests have huge geopolitical consequences. If farmers win and can stop the adoption of new laws, they will slow down India’s own development plans. This also demonstrates how, in such a huge democracy, it is difficult to consolidate the national unity required to move the country forward in one direction, illustrating the contrast between New Delhi and Beijing. Thus, this standoff between farmers and the government will mark a major part of India’s economic story and its ambitions toward becoming an industrialized country and the anchor of America’s own great power strategy.

As said on the front page of my website … in the world of great powers “You learn to realize that many things are not what they look alike”. The sentence is again confirmed in the reality.