Why Are Global Trade Rules Not on the Agenda During Indian Elections?

In a country where a majority of the population is engaged in increasingly unviable agriculture, shouldn’t politicians talk about the trade rules that make it so?                                                        

Trade rules can be ruthless to small farmers and local communities. Credit: Reuters/Aly Song

Trade rules can be ruthless to small farmers and local communities. Credit: Reuters/Aly Song

One cannot help but draw parallels between the elections in the US and those in the states in India. While it is best left to psephologists to analyse voting patterns and election results, it’s telling to compare the issues on which the elections are fought in the world’s largest democracies.

India claims to be a mature democracy and often likens itself to the US. Yet, there are huge differences between the two democracies, to say the least. One such difference is in pre-election debates. The subjects discussed in the two countries also show far less similarities; trade rules were on the election agenda in the US, while they found no mention whatsoever in the state elections in India.

US strategy

In the US presidential elections, candidates from both parties – Republican and Democrat – had taken a clear stand against trade agreements. Did the average American voter on the street know enough about the existing North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? Maybe they did not. But the presidential candidates made trade rules an issue and, in doing so, built public opinion against free trade agreements (FTAs). Amongst the first executive orders that US President Donald Trump signed was the one withdrawing the US from the talks on the 12-country TPP. He did not want to be seen endorsing a trade agreement that outsourced jobs to other countries.

The strategic value of raising trade rules in any current election campaign cannot be understated. This is because today, trade rules agreed between countries inform all the policy decisions of governments, be it on water, seeds, health, education, technology or investment. The net effect of legally binding rules of trade is that governments have lesser domestic space on subjects of vital importance to people’s lives and livelihoods.

Messaging from political parties at the time of elections when the voter is listening is an opportunity to educate the electorate far beyond the immediate elections. By doing so, a candidate or her political party can mobilise a constituency, on the back of whom the elected representatives can also get the strength to ward off any pressure from trade partners once they are in power. This is provided the political elite does want to safeguard the interests of the weakest and smallest in their country. For FTAs are largely driven by corporate interests, apart from geo-political ambitions of states.

State governments and election promises

When the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, its election manifesto promise on Centre-state relations included “involv(ing) the state governments in the promotion of foreign trade and commerce”. But consultation with state governments on the FTAs that the central government is negotiating (like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP) is still to be institutionalised.

It must not be forgotten that Punjab was one of the four states that got together in 1995 to sue the government of India for having joined the WTO that year, without any consultation with state governments. The constitutional challenge of the government’s decision to do so was premised on the fact that it goes against the federal system. As per the constitution, agriculture is a state subject.

Elections were just fought in two key agricultural states in India – Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Yet trade rules that have implications for food, farms and seeds were not part of any political parties’ sloganeering. There are several aspects of the WTO, which go against the poor and marginal farmers in these states. An informed electorate would know that domestic decision making on agriculture is constrained by our treaty obligations under the WTO. So voters need to know whether what candidates may have offered as an election promise to small farmers will ever fructify, given that space for policy is restricted by India’s WTO commitments.

Due to the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture, governments cannot endlessly raise minimum support prices (MSP) without facing legal challenge by other WTO members. Yet MSP for grains have often been a political plank in and around elections in India. In 2016, the US initiated a complaint against China’s price support programme for wheat, rice and corn through the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism. The government of India is attempting to join that ongoing case in the WTO as an interested third party, for it is concerned about the future of its MSP policies as well as its food security programmes. Market access for agricultural products is one of the most contested issues amongst WTO members. And matters can worsen if India accepts any ‘WTO-plus’ commitments in the FTAs, like RCEP, that it is in talks with 15 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Punjab held state elections on February 4. The state has suffered the consequences of a chemical-laden, input-intensive ‘green revolution’ rolled out by the USAID in the 1960s. The Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee’s manifesto (2017-2022) promises to help spawn another ‘green revolution’. While the same document admits that “(t)he soil health of the state is seriously damaged, thanks to the increased and reckless use of sub-standard agro chemicals and fertilisers”.

Meanwhile, it cites the figures of the Punjab State Farmers’ Commission that one lakh farmers have left agriculture in the past decade. Congress also promises “kissana layee aarthik te samajik suraksha (economic and social protection for farmers)”. The BJP, among other things, had promised a farmers income commission.

Punjab’s small farmers have faced the down side of both technology and trade rules. Trade rules continue to support the agro industrial model of farming.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the 17th legislative assembly polls were held through February and March, the farm crisis is as acute. Bundelkhand, one of the most underdeveloped regions of UP, has faced repeated droughts for almost 15 years.

The procurement by the government has been at a low, while our trade negotiators fight at WTO in Geneva to safeguard our domestic space for farmer-supportive policies and programmes. UP is highly dependent on pulse imports to meet its needs. But this did not surface as an issue in the elections. At most, the Samajwadi Party promised a treasury for farmers. BJP’s Lok Kalyan Sankalp Patra for UP promises farm loan waiver and zero-interest loans for farmers. Nothing is said about pushing back trade rules that make farming unviable for small farmers in the first place.

Trade rules can be equally ruthless to small farmers and local communities, no matter whether in India or elsewhere. Political candidates and voters alike need to be aware of how trade rules can impact lives and livelihoods. Ignorance will help neither.

Elections are important in democracies. Equally important are the issues on which they are fought. Elections, just as trade rules, have to be contested from the realities on the ground, for that is where their true impacts are felt. It is the local that can confront the global. And no matter the place, the agenda for people must win.

Shalini Bhutani is a legal researcher and policy analyst based in Delhi; she tracks how trade rules interface with agriculture and biodiversity in the Asian region.

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.