A disturbing new trend in Punjab politics

CHANDIGARH Oct. 3. In the first two days of this month Punjab witnessed two separate events which signify not only a unique trend of sorts but also hold out clear indications about the nature of future discourse in State politics.

Sadly, while all parties could share the blame, a situation has developed where credit goes to none, much to the misery of those depending on agriculture as their livelihood. Is the State moving from political flux to turmoil, instead of resolving critical issues, is a question that confronts political observers here today.

On October 1 and 2, Punjab witnessed two separately convened all-party meetings to discuss the situation that had developed previously due to delay and subsequently no increase in the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for paddy, even when the farmers had begun to bring their produce to the markets. One meeting was convened by the State unit of the CPI, while the other was organised by the ruling Congress Party.

Though the numbers of participating parties differed, both meetings raised the same concerns, mirrored opinion on identical issues, and offered similar remedies, resulting in polarisation of political forces. It was a rare occasion for political parties with divergent ideologies and agenda seeming to express what could be "consensus opinion'' under normal circumstances. However, driven by the quest for oneupmanship, they chose to push the remedies into the background only to be replaced by competitive populism.

It was clear that the different parties were catering only to the needs of maximising their respective political space and resorted to open manipulation. In an attempt to teach a lesson to its electoral alliance partner, the CPI, the Congress walked off with the entire legislative group of the former comprising two legislators. While manipulating the CPI, the ruling Congress also exposed itself and got manipulated by the farmers' organisations, who extracted a plethora of announcements, which the Government had resisted for some time. Conditions are being set where the much-acclaimed "reform-oriented'' Budget of the Government this year may not find a political environment conducive for survival.

Also the Congress seems to have adopted an anti-Centre stance for which the Akalis were once known for. Though such political positioning may have benefited a regional party like Akali Dal, analysts are sceptical that a national party like the Congress may find the agenda tough to pursue for long.

Asked to name a section of the political leadership responsible for the present situation, a farmer in one of the grain markets quipped: "Who is not to be blamed''

Perhaps the political parties of Punjab are out to prove right the renowned Marxist thinker Prof. Randhir Singh who is often quoted as having argued that the present ruling classes, including parties from both sides, have put up a show of unity to produce more tragedies for the people.

The policy-makers have been working out strategies to maintain the status quo in the State's political economy. The focus in the farm sector has been on diversification only without initiating structural and institutional reforms

According to observers, the present trends in State politics are fraught with major dangers, as these would further push the discourse and positioning of leaders towards a scenario where the economy would thrive only on doles, a process initiated by the previous Akali Dal-BJP regime.

Also they point out that the decision of the present Government to convene a special session of the State Assembly is the proverbial silver lining in the dark clouds. It is an opportunity for the political leadership to seek remedies and chalk out a collective strategy for the grim agrarian crisis in Punjab.

The biggest challenge faced by Punjab today is transformation of agriculture from a protective economy to a competitive economy in this era of globalisation, especially due to the provisions of the Agreement on Agriculture in the WTO regime. There is an urgent need to create institutional mechanisms like setting up market intelligence, safeguard the interests of the farmers by making co-operative bodies function in the corporate mode, bring about technical upgradation and skill augmentation to cut down production costs.

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