At a prayer meeting the night before he fell to his assassin’s bullets, Mahatma Gandhi spoke about what turned out to be his last wish — India should have a farmer as Prime Minister. “Someone came to see me today. I forget his name. He mentioned peasants. I said if I had my way, our Governor-General would be a peasant; our Prime Minister would be a peasant.”

Recalling his childhood poem which said, “O farmer, you are the king, the master of the whole world” the Mahatma continued, “What would we eat if the peasant did not produce food? But today we have made him a slave. What can a peasant do? Must he acquire academic degrees such as BA and MA? If he does that he will be ruined. He will be no more good for wielding the pick axe. If the man who produced foodgrain out of the earth becomes our Chief, our Prime Minister, the face of India will change.” (CWMG Vol 90:525).

Then and now

The Mahatma spoke at a time when famine, food shortage and rural distress raged across newly-independent India. Seventy years later when India’s farm distress has reached alarming levels with about 12,000 farmers committing suicides every year, his words resonate ever so powerfully. Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveal that out of the total suicide incidents in the country in 2015, about 9.4 per cent were from the farming sector. This rate has come down from double digits during the decade 2002-2012.

The thoughts that occupied Gandhiji in the months leading to his assassination were concerning precisely this scenario. Consider his repeated exhortations for installing peasants in key decision-making positions, his sneering contempt for the educated elite whom he believed to be incapable of understanding and addressing the farmer’s distress.

“Unfortunately, none of our Ministers is a peasant. The Sardar (Vallabhbhai Patel) is a peasant by birth and has some knowledge of agriculture, but he is a barrister by profession. Jawaharlal is a scholar and a great writer, but what does he know about farming? More than 80 per cent of our population are peasants. In a true democracy, there should be the rule of peasants in our country. They need not become barristers. They should know how to be good farmers, how to increase their produce and keep the soil fertile. If we had such peasants, I would ask Jawaharlal to be their secretary,” said the Mahatma on November 26, 1947, making a reference to a remark by a Secretary of a provincial Congress committee, who was a farmer, (CWMG Vol 90:112).

“Our peasant ministers would stay not in a palace but in a mud-house, and would toil on the land throughout the day. Then alone can there be true peasant rule,” he had said.

It is almost uncanny what the Mahatma could foresee, and the great lengths to which he went for trying to prevent this disaster. A brief inquiry into the causes of farm distress in newly independent India of 1940s-50s and that of an emerging economy today with a GDP of over ₹129.85 lakh crore (AE for 2017-18) and growing at about 7 per cent annually, reveals no significant difference.

Resource scarcity in villages, uncertainties of rain-fed farming, price swings for agro produce and the influence of middlemen haunt farmers even today.

This is a recurring theme keeps in his writings and speeches. In ‘Food Shortage and Agriculture’ , published by Navjivan, B Kumarappa provides an interesting insight into Gandhiji’s vision about farming in India.

The book reveals that Gandhiji categorically listed ways and means to improve the state of Indian agriculture. First, prevention of fragmentation and fixing economic holdings. Second, country-wide tapping and harnessing of water resources; third, improvement of soil and its productivity through natural as well as scientific treatment of manures, seeds, crop-diseases, prevention of soil erosion etc; fourth, cooperation; fifth, State aid and protection; and sixth, reclamation of waste-lands inland and along the sea-coast and creeks.

The Mahatma considered crops such as cotton, castor seed, groundnut, rice, sugar besides vegetables as the strength of India’s agriculture.

“So far as agriculture went, Gandhiji seemed to concern himself only with the question of increasing soil fertility by the use of organic manures and with improving our cattle, apparently because other problems relating to agriculture were too big to be tackled by the individual immediately without State aid,” Kumarappa wrote in the Editor’s note.

In the context of then prevailing food shortage in erstwhile Madras State, Gandhiji had repeatedly stressed on self-reliance in foodgrain production and strengthening the rural economy by generating employment at their door-step. The objective was to decentralise capital formation and discourage concentration of workforce in urban pockets.

Today, as the clamour for farm loan waiver amid joblessness in the farm sector puts pressure on the Centre and State governments, a relook at Gandhiji’s thoughts can provide new possibilities.

A farmer in Mahuva taluka of Bhavnagar district in Gujarat finishes his graduation in business administration but remains without a suitable job and sinks into despair and frustration. A natural dislike for farming emanates because of the low yield and unattractive prices. What adds fuel to the fire, is the growing aspirations with the penetration of internet and technology.

The first Five-Year Plan (1951-56) focussed on agriculture. However, the subsequent policy focus shifted towards industrialisation with capital-intensive heavy projects. Is Gandhiji’s wish for a “farmer Prime Minister” misplaced or unwarranted?

In his view, a newly-independent country — with low-productivity agriculture as the mainstay of life for about 70 per cent of the population — required serious action with empathy.