Evergreen Revolution

Why Charan Singh’s advocacy for agrarian interests still endures

A mural of Charan Singh. Over a career spanning four decades, before and after Independence, first with the Congress and then against it, Singh remained a staunch Gandhian. Anindito Mukherjee / Bloomberg / Getty Images
31 October, 2021

ON 14 SEPTEMBER, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his first rally in Uttar Pradesh since the farmers’ protests against the new agricultural laws began, almost three hundred days earlier. He reiterated his government’s commitment towards the interests of small farmers. At a function in Aligarh, after laying the foundation stone for a state university, Modi declared that his government was committed to the interests of small farmers. As the guiding light of his agricultural policies, he invoked the former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh. “We know the amount of benefit accrued to labourers and small farmers due to the path shown by Chaudhary Charan Singh Sahab decades ago,” Modi said. “Many generations today are leading a dignified life today owing to these reforms. It is very essential that the government stands with the small farmers who Chaudhary Sahab was so concerned about.”

The speech was interesting for various reasons. First, Charan Singh’s grandson Jayant Chaudhary, the national president of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, has been instrumental in the agitations in Uttar Pradesh against the Modi government’s new farm laws. Second, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the precursor to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party—responded to Singh’s thinking on the interests of the peasantry with precisely the same charge that the BJP presently levels against the leadership of the farmers’ movement, including the RLD: that it represents the interests of rich and landed farmers, as opposed to those of the “small farmer.” Third, it demonstrates the ruling party’s capacity to appropriate key historical figures for its own political purposes, as the new farm laws have little in common with Singh’s agrarian ideas. Singh, India’s only peasant prime minister and a two-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is only the latest political giant to be appropriated in this manner by the BJP—other examples include Vallabhbhai Patel and BR Ambedkar, both of whose visions for India differed from the Hindutva agenda. At its root, this is made possible by the lack of public knowledge about the historical and intellectual legacies of these individuals.

Over a career spanning four decades, before and after Independence, first with the Congress and then against it, Singh remained a staunch Gandhian. He advanced a detailed blueprint for India’s development along Gandhian principles, advocating for the primacy of agriculture over industry and of employment over mechanical production. Singh’s positions epitomised Gandhi’s preferred strategy for independent India, just as the positions he argued against epitomised the strategy of Jawaharlal Nehru. While Nehru was enamoured of industry and considered it the principal source of employment, Gandhi conceived of India as a collection of villages, with agriculture being the predominant occupation. After Gandhi’s assassination, in 1948, the “Nehruvian consensus” prevailed, and Singh became one of the most trenchant critics of this development strategy. This brought him into direct conflict with Nehru, Indira Gandhi and the Congress at the height of their popularity.

Singh’s books lay out a history of Nehruvian development strategy, including the matter of land reform, which was then, as it remains to this day, one of the central questions facing all postcolonial economies. They articulate the mechanisms that have led to the systematic failure of the Nehruvian approach, including rampant unemployment, environmental degradation, inequalities of income and wealth, and the crisis of indigenous capital formation. Moreover, they advance an alternative model for the Indian economy.