Agriculture has been major loser in electoral politics of Post Conflict Punjab

The need of political parties Akali Dal and Congress to recapture the legitimacy that parties had lost in the conflict period, motivated both parties to hold aloft agendas that ignored the agrarian crisis which had become ripe by 1980s

Elections are important part of post conflict societies as a means to return to normalcy. Elections in post conflict societies provide an opportunity to people to introspect and at the same time create new ways for political parties to win over their electorate.

Post Conflict Punjab is very important to discuss as it helps us understand how two parties which angered the electorate continue to dominate the political sphere in the suba. Consider the survey done in Amritsar in 2004 in which 26% respondents believe that both the parties were responsible for the conflict. Eighty six percent of the respondents who believed that political parties were responsible held that no party actually did anything to address the basic needs of people, 43.5% of the same people believed that parties were corrupt beyond repair. The big question is, did Agriculture take a back seat in quest to reclaim the power in post conflict Punjab?

After 12yrs of turmoil or let’s call it conflict, both the parties AD (Akali Dal) and Congress were competing to reinvent their agendas and recast their images in the minds of punjabis. Even though elections provide an opportunity for parties in post conflict times to reinvent the confidence and work on development agendas, the three elections post conflict in Punjab saw two parties doing nothing more than politics for power. In particular the agrarian crisis of Punjab that had started impacting farmers due to disillusionment from green revolution and unrest were not taken care in the elections of 92, 97 and 2002.

If we analyse the restoration of normalcy in post conflict societies we find that restoration of democracy and democratic institutions is very important to make people confident in the state. However all the conflict theorists and policy makers put out a corollary that the political parties we talk about in post conflict areas cannot be the bureaucratic and rigid parties which was exactly the case in Punjab. The agrarian crisis has neither been reflected nor set the terms of debate for electoral processes in Punjab. The gap between the political noise and sensible talk on agriculture is wide in Punjab. This is worrying for a state that depends on agriculture and is discontent with it since 1980s.

Background

The political context of the elections to state assembly in Punjab in 1992 was characterised by three factors, all of which combined to draw politics in direction of indetermination. Central govt held by congress believed that elections should be held even though the militancy had not been contained. Secondly, elections had been boycotted by kharkus and had been written as clear symbol of centre’s tactic to take attention away from main issues, thirdly AD which had fragmented into number of Dals boycotted elections as well. Only AD (K) faction led by Amrinder singh contested the elections. In addition to this elections were not easy to be held due to large scale violence, for instance 28 people were killed when state tried to hold elections in June 1991 and when elections were finally held in 1992 it resulted in mere 24% voter turnout making it one of the lowest at that point in time.

The elections itself were subject of contention between Congress and AD. Congress believed that elections are necessary for return of democracy whereas AD and its small factions except AD (K) held that elections can’t be held when previous issues are pending and in huge army presence in the state. AD was also shy of losing the Sikh vote and support by jumping in the election bandwagon. The reluctance of Akalis was understandable given the boycott calls given by all major Kharkus of the time. AD was always challenged by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and even before him to prove their capabilities to safeguard the Sikh interests in Punjab. To ignore the boycott call would have been to ignore the biggest vote share in Punjab. Secondly AD was in incompetent position to prove anything to Sikhs, it had been unable to secure Anandpur Sahib resolution, unable to prevent transfer of Chandigarh from Punjab, Keep control over irrigation projects, secure adequate support from central govt for agriculture in the state. There was literally nothing for AD to take to people of Punjab, hence the boycott. Had Akalis been able to secure some sort of support for agriculture and peasantry from centre, things could have been different, but centre did not want to do that too. Centre knew that Akalis had been weakened and pumping the funds for agriculture will strengthen their stand in peasantry of Punjab making it hard for congress to win. In a way both AD and Congress kept Farmers interests at bay for politics.

Politics and Agrarian crisis of Punjab

The battles of 1992 were fought on many issues but agriculture was none of them, neither for congress nor for AD or any of its factions. In post 1992 election scenario Akalis started setting their own house in order, with Sant Jarnail Singh Ji Bhindranwale gone and pick & kill method of elimination of dissent, Akalis no longer were interested in sabotaging their political interests. Within an year in 1993, Akalis who had boycotted the polls of 1992 decided to contest the panchayat elections which saw 80% voter turn out. Akalis started drum beating that the huge voter turn out was because of their presence whereas Congress ran its course that democracy had finally been established. Farmers unions that were protesting in 1984 for months outside Raj Bhavan were again ignored by both the parties.

By 1997 state elections, various factions of Akalis had united to fight the elections together. The 1997 elections unlike 1992 elections were held in far more peaceful manner and as such the vision and interest of parties should have been economic issues but it wasn’t the case. Congress was hampered due to absence of Beant Singh and also due to the main issue that congress contested elections for ie- elimination of militancy, with both taken out the Congress balloon was deflated. Akalis meanwhile under the guidance of Prakash singh Badal not only shelved ASR down the flush but also joined hands with rightist BJP.

The coalition was not the first time phenomena for AD, AD that had mere 30% vote share had to join hands with most unlikely allies in 1967, 69 and 77- The Jan Sangh which is the precursor of BJP. In the process of compulsions of electoral politics, AD had to give up most of Sikhi interests and take up more secular stand like Punjabiyat. AD that was vocal against Hindu dominant Congress and challenged it one time with “Panth in danger” was now in line with secular thread to keep Punjab and nation first. The farmers were always missing from its electoral politics and ‘Freedom from corruption’ became the joint stand of both BJP and Akalis. ASR had been shelved down the drain as well. BJP did not want any separatist agendas(according to BJP) on its truck and AD obliged for power. Second reason for the parties to come together was religiosity, both the parties stated that Punjab was land of Sants and Gurus, the stance was hardened that only righteous party had right to govern land of Sant and Gurus. All further politics concentrated on highlighting the acts of congress in 1984 and how it doesn’t carry any moral weight to govern Punjab. This did resonate with most of the people but not with the peasantry that felt ignored and drawn towards communist ideologies resulting in splitting up of BKU and formation of national level BKU.

It is not that AD manifesto had nothing to offer to farmers- it made references to development, roads, bridges, free power and water, benefit for traders and fiscal governance. The problem was that it addressed the general concerns of only big farming lobby without considering the fact that farmers are actually disillusioned with GR and it has stopped paying them. Akalis kept pushing for mechanisation of agriculture which they thought was revolutionary but the condition of peasantry deteriorated every day. The congress on the other hand continued to harp on the separatist tendencies of Akalis and promised to thwart them to bring peace in Punjab. Congress kept itself busy wooing the Hindu trader community of Punjab by doing underground work. The narrative that Khalistan is still alive was and more or less is still essential for any party to play politics in Punjab.

It is clear from the unprecedented mandate that went in favour of Akalis that by 1997 Punjab had outgrown the peace agenda. People were looking for more than same rhetoric. Akalis with their general and not agrarian specific politics didn’t pay attention to depleting water, monoculture, falling prices, increasing loans etc. AD govt neither had policy initiative nor a comprehensive plan at hand to deal with serious problem of livelihood

Ironically by 2002, the roles of congress and AD were completely reversed. Firstly despite the fact that it was AD that had raised the issues in ASR with which it confronted govt in 1970s and 1980s, it was now congress talking about interstate water disputes and handing over Chd to Punjab. These issues have always been used by parties in Punjab and if you see anyone using these issues now please understand that there is history to it and using these doesn’t necessarily mean victory in elections. Congress used the corruption allegations in Coalition govt of BJP and AD in Punjab. Congress thus started out and framed its manifestos that if party ever comes to power its leaders will declare their assets thereby making it hard for Prakash singh Badal who was involved in massive corruptions. Again the issue of agriculture took a back seat in the tussle between Badal family and congress.

The congress manifesto made some references to worsening economic situation in the state with its slogan, “freedom from bankruptcy”. Congress manifesto included concessions worth 1200 cr to traders, farmers and weaker sections of society. It also maintained that it would not allow dismantling of MSP and would continue with free water and electricity. In addition to this it basically added nothing to address the worsening condition of agriculture. The playbook for Akalis was not simple for they had done nothing for the farmers in their five years, so new cries of ‘dissatisfaction with centre’ was carried on. A party that is not able to perform in Punjab has historically blamed it on centre. AD in its manifesto tried to save its face citing step motherly treatment by centre due to which it couldn’t fulfil the promises of peasantry. The loser again- Peasants Of Punjab.

Peasant Movement

How is it that political parties kept the burning issues of peasants at bay and still were able to garner votes in Punjab? Do section of society that is adversely affected not have the capability to mobilise itself to press on their demands? This goes beyond politics of the state and its parties. The current movement has seen unity in Punjab across all threads and the underlying sentiment of disappointment with all parties of Punjab. The grassroots movement is not just in opposition to three farm laws but due to to the worsening agrarian conditions in Punjab, the conditions that were not paid attention to by the parties. This is the reason that current movement cannot be hijacked by any political party.

Conclusion

The need of Akalis and Congress to recapture legitimacy in Punjab’s politics kept agrarian issues as well as the needs of peasantry at bay. The elections in 1992 and there after have been constantly fought on the issues of peace, and validity of election itself. In further years when Peace was no longer an issue the roles reversed with congress taking up interstate issues which ironically were AD’s weapons in 70s and 80s. The constant use of Khalistan by both the parties as vote gathering phrase has kept the most important aspect of Punjab which is its peasantry at bay. None of the election manifestos ever aimed at improving agriculture in Punjab. The mass movements and mobilisation were not possible in Punjab upto 1992. Things started changing that with ideology of most farming organisations gathering up and splinter group formation. Narendra Modi’s act of passing three farm laws has added vinegar to milk if we look at it from mobilisation point of view. This movement has given an opportunity to split unions to get together under one umbrella and challenge the politics of parties in Punjab that have ignored agriculture for long time.

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