Who will Udta Punjab choose?

Who will Udta Punjab choose?

It was a tete-a-tete high-tea. Just a couple of us with a party heavyweight from the BJP. Winter afternoons are wonderful times in Delhi if the Sun...

Punjab makes a sad commentary today. It once fed the entire nation, thanks to the green revolution. Today it is on the verge of self-destruction yet, none talks of these real issues. The ruling SAD-BJP alliance hopes AAP will split anti-incumbency vote and Congress views it as a game-spoiler. But for the miffed Punjabis, AAP has come as a fresh whiff of air. How will the faceless commoner act now in Punjab is to be seen

It was a tete-a-tete high-tea. Just a couple of us with a party heavyweight from the BJP. Winter afternoons are wonderful times in Delhi if the Sun peeps through the clouds and haze. The sprawling lawns of the 'Kothi' with the garden chairs in the middle was a perfect setting for a leisurely conversation.

Where is the hurry, the host asked as soon as the Punjab question came up. When it came to UP, he was all set and go, but Punjab...? After what looked like an eternity, he smiled to say "well, we are not worried or bothered about it too much. Whatever will be, will be."

Was it a fatalistic recognition on his part, we wondered. “No Punjab is a case beyond our control. Anti-incumbency is just a part of it. We may not come back to power there. Anyway, we have not given much thought to it. We are concentrating on the UP elections more than any."

But, has the party completely given up on Punjab? 'Nope' he says. In fact, there is little hope for the ruling coalition in the border State. Yet, it is not a gone-case for it. If it were to be a duel and duel alone, then the ruling alliance would have completely given up.

The foray of AAP into the murky waters has changed the equations here to a large extent. Surveys have predicted that the SAD-BJP combine would lose to the benefit of the Congress. AAP has been placed somewhere between them. That was a while ago.

Whether the voters would opt for the Congress and the Congress alone is not predictable. For the miffed Punjabis, AAP comes as a fresh whiff of air. Just look at the NRI expresses – campaign vehicles hired by the NRIs in support of AAP candidates criss-crossing the State – seeking a change.

People of Delhi might have been fed up with the Chief Minister without a portfolio (Arvind Kejriwal does not have any department and hence, no responsibility and hence not answerable to anyone!), but Punjabis may not be knowing this.

(Secondly, despite his denial, Kejriwal still deeply nourishes the dream of becoming the Chief Minister of a full-fledged State. He is also not happy with his party's performance and the mounting pressures on him to deliver).

SAD-BJP combine is sitting smug in the light of the developments that are pushing the Congress to the edge. The discomfort of the Congress in the face of the AAP assault is visible. AAP is not only making inroads into the dalit and OBC votes in Punjab but also has the potential to disturb the urban segments when it comes to the youth.

This is where the NRI campaign hurts the Congress the most. Surprisingly enough, the BJP swept the civic body polls in Chandigarh recently causing much chagrin to the Congress. In the rural backyard of the Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal still has a good base despite the charges and allegations against the Badals. Here the Congress could not make much impact, it is said.

Shrugging off the past baggage is not an easy task for the Congress in this segment and the elderly still recall the carnage that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination. No doubt, people are fed up with the lawlessness and crime associated with the Akali regime in Punjab. People are now calling it 'Udta Punjab' rightly because of the drug menace that has eaten into the vitals of the society.

The State government denies it, but there is no one ready to buy its story. 'SADly,' it is those in power who are accused of involved in the business. "Not much difference in this part of Punjab and in that of Pakistan. Same lawlessness, same violence, same exploitation and same oppression" is how sane voices put it.

"They need us and we need them. It is as simple as that. It is an inter-dependent world. There is no way we part ways. They do not trouble us here at the Centre and we do not meddle in their business much in the State," our host pointed out.

He admits to the fact that the society has taken much beating in the process. Strangely, even if the Akalis deny there is a drug menace in Punjab, they do not dismiss drug addiction. Unemployment is rampant in the State and the agrarian crisis has not helped much.

A look at the profile of the farmers who committed suicide due to unseasonal rains reveals they are mostly marginal and small farmers, with land holdings up to five acres, who had taken additional land on lease at the rate of Rs 30,000-40,000, a well-established practice in Malwa region of Punjab.

This is the same category of small and marginal farmers which accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of farmer suicides in general in government's long-term farmer suicide data. In fact, the geographical concentration of suicides in the recent months is also in the same districts of Malwa, with the major reason behind their suicide being debt, newspaper reports have pointed out.

Agriculture in Punjab suffers from mono-crop culture of mainly wheat and paddy. With this cropping pattern, farming itself is becoming an unviable occupation, due to rising fixed and variable input costs, and low remuneration leading to falling profit margins.

Variable costs increase due to rising prices of inputs like fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides, diesel etc. And further fixed costs like installation and deepening of submersible pumps due to the dipping water table increase the financial woes of farmers.

For a small and marginal farmer, it is economically unviable to make such investments, especially by borrowing from informal sources at high rates of interest (18 to 36 per cent). Production levels in the state have already touched the saturation point and productivity cannot be increased further by intensive use of inputs, reports say.

Exploitation by the Arhtiyas (commission agents) and large-scale mechanisation of farming have worsened their situation. It is not strange to find only a single person in the family handling entire farming operation.

The rest in the family have no employment and hence no earning. Unremunerative prices add to their woes leading to depression. This is where the youth tend to get dragged into drugs slowly only to be exploited by the influential to peddle for them for their own dose in the latter days.

Punjab makes a sad commentary today. It once fed the entire nation, thanks to the green revolution. Today it is on the verge of self-destruction yet, none talks of these real issues. It is in this background that Punjab goes to the polls this year. The ruling alliance awaits the result with crossed fingers hoping against hope that the AAP might split the anti-incumbency vote to its benefit.

AAP's campaign mainly is on providing employment and the drug menace. Given its very nature, it would be too much of AAP to understand the agrarian economy. The Congress, on the other hand, understands that AAP is not a game-changer, but a game-spoiler.

The faceless commoner of this country has always displayed his wisdom when it comes to elections. How would he act now in Punjab is to be seen. Will he be rooted in traditional bases? Will he prefer again the local?

Or will he experiment with the outsider? As our host said "whatever will be, will be," but, for the farmer of Punjab it is a no-man's land. No one bothers about his plight. Que Sera Sera!

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