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16 November 2011

Politics of Hope

Written by Jayant Chaudhary

Politics of Hope

drogbaAs I sat down to pen my thoughts on the issue of farmers’ power, I had a sudden realization of the enormity of the task at hand.

Can the social and political status of agriculturalists in our massive and diverse nation be summarized in few hundred words? In order to be succinct I shall refrain from sermonizing along the lines of the usual refrain, i.e. we are a krishi pradhan country and the India Vs Bharat theory! Both these concepts are well accepted by policy makers and the general public and have been part of the political vocabulary for decades. I would instead like to dwell on the issue of representation. Whether the political and administrative system has been sensitive to the frustrations and struggles of the masses residing in the villages of India.

It is an indisputable fact that villagers elect a majority of our parliamentarians. A large number of our MPs also profess to be agriculturalists (over 236 in the 15th LS) and as in my case ‘sons of farmers’. It is well known that close to 70% of our 1.1 billion strong population is dependent on agriculture and also that the people in the villages are keen followers of political trends. In my travels to urban and rural centres across the nation I have noticed the stark difference in attitudes to participation in politics. What is the reason you can have rallies in the national capital with thousands of farmers protesting a change in the sugar policy or land acquisition but never see numbers out against service tax imposition on a particular sector or erratic electricity supply in Delhi? Simply attending a election rally in a city marketplace in Delhi and one in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh will illustrate the contrast I am talking about. It is in the villages ironically where I detect hope in eyes of the listening and participating public whilst the big metros are characterized by low voter turnouts and indifference. Also, with the concept of devolution of authority to smaller units of local self-government including panchayats gaining currency, increased awareness and participation of the rural poor in formulating and implementing policies is to be expected. Given the contribution to the economy and society at large, the rural and the farmer identity has therefore a great relevance on the political stage. However, given the poor growth in agricultural production (1.6% in 08-09) and steady decline in economic status of farmers, it is quite evident that this section does not have the political clout that is required to bring about changes in our policies and actions.

We should not make the mistake of measuring political power through numbers out on the streets in sporadic agitations. There is a silent minority in our country that has the ears of the planners and people in charge. Back room manoeuvering is more effective than sloganeering. Take the budget for instance. Every year the finance minister embarks on pre budget estimations, and CII, FICCI and trade organization hog the limelight with their expectations and demands posed to the government. The result is that not even one finance minister can put his hand on his heart and say the farmer of India is the priority and focus of my budget.

It can be argued that agriculture is not treated as a separate economic activity but a tertiary sector of industry! We expect a trickle down effect from industry and trade to agriculture. Just look at the declining public investment in agriculture and related infrastructure like irrigation, warehousing etc. Look at the decay in our public agricultural research institutions and at the immense potential for creating a new wave of rural entrepreneurs through food processing and agri business going to waste because of bureaucratic attitudes.

Amongst the many failures in policy that could be pointed out as examples, our failure to expand PDS to include pulses or course cereals like jowar, bajra, etc grown by small farmers, adopt fair norms for support pricing as proposed by the Swaminathan commission, protect our farmers from increasingly unfair terms of international trade (as we wait for clarity on the India-EU Free Trade Agreement). Why is it that despite political parties, NGOs and civil society crying hoarse over our faulty land acquisition and rehabilitation laws it takes a rally that inconveniences most of Delhi’s commuters and middle classes for the government to wake up and announce intent to enact a new law.

Whether the farmer can be seen today as a homogenous identity is debatable and the primary reason for the decline of farmer power in politics is the emergence of the caste identity, which has unfortunately taken centre stage in politics and especially in northern India. It should not be seen through the prism of the national vs regional party debate as in many cases it is the bigger national parties which promote caste based approach to processes of building organizations, granting electoral tickets and campaigns.

The influence of caste and religion in politics works to the detriment of smaller and more focused parties like Rashtriya Lokdal which have a declared rural and agrarian focus as the larger identity of the farmer is lost in the fight to be recognized first as a kurmi, yadav, bhumihar etc. Recent events including the inflationary trends in agri commodities and media coverage devoted to rotting storage infrastructure has rightly brought focus to the urgent need for enhancing our productive, processing and storage capacities.

We like happy ‘filmy’ endings so while the tone of my article is morose, I am inherently hopeful. I believe in the ability of the younger generation to innovate, speak their mind and influence change. The young farmers, agricultural workers, rural artisans of today and tomorrow will be the fulcrum around which Indian economic, cultural and social growth will be based. To quote our recent visitor Barack Obama "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?"

By Jayant Chaudhary

The author is a Member of Parliament and Rashtriya Lok Dal Leader.

(Source: The week - Anniversary Special Issue, 26 December, 2010)

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