The veteran farmers’ rights activist Pritam Choudhary does not conceal his anger at the clutch of new political exercises of political parties and their leaders in the context of the drought and rural distress. He said: “Politicking over rural and agrarian crises, especially drought and floods, is a long-time phenomenon in India. All political forces, old and new, practise this. When they are in power, their promises to the distressed people get bigger and bigger with each passing season. When they are in the opposition, their lament about the situation and the inadequacies of the government rises to a crescendo. However, no political organisation takes care to monitor the actual work on the ground and guide it properly. On the one hand, the rhetoric gets more and more intense and the benefits get increasingly cosmetic. On the other, the criticism too follows predictable patterns. Today’s rhetoric-monger becomes tomorrow’s critic and vice versa. Despite the decades-long political verbiage, there are no consummate efforts to address issues of different regions as per their geographical, climatic and demographic particularities and implement comprehensive solutions. Bundelkhand and Vidarbha are stark examples of this. Ultimately, the balance of power and penury remain as desired by the leaders. And, indeed, one or the other reaps political benefits too.”
Pritam Choudhary’s observation is grounded in his over five decades of experience in the rural and agrarian sector. During this period, he was associated with former Prime Minister Charan Singh, who was independent India’s greatest champion of rural causes, particularly of the farmers. Choudhary says that while the commitment and application to tackle rural distress were indeed better under leaders like Charan Singh, the hyperbole and politicking associated with them were disproportionately high even then. “Thirty per cent real work and 70 per cent bombast was the equation then. Of course, now with leaders like Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the proportion is 10 per cent work and 90 per cent talk.”
That politicking in the name of rural distress is more often than not farcical is a view that has widespread resonance in the intensely drought-affected regions and among sociological observers of the situation. But it still goes on and does make an impact, too, albeit in varying degrees.
Naturally, this politicking gets into high gear in regions that have electoral contests coming up in the immediate or medium term. Thus, in the context of the drought and rural distress in 2016, there is an added focus on Punjab, where Assembly elections are due in 2016, and Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due in 2017.
However, the extreme political rhetoric on these issues by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during its campaign for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and a number of Assembly elections later that year extended the intense political focus to other parts of the country too, mainly Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, all States where Assembly elections are due in mid and late 2019. The focus in these States relates to the big promises made by BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi on tacking rural distress. The districts in Bundelkhand, considered to be the worst affected region in the 2016 distress, are spread across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The political posturing in relation to different States is nuanced according to the political exigencies. Thus, in Punjab the discourse revolves around the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP government’s failure to get the Union government to give it assistance despite the evident rainfall deficit in the State. Traditionally, Punjab does not figure in the list of drought-hit States since it has a relatively large network of 14 lakh tube wells to irrigate crops. However, the State government had demanded Central assistance to the tune of Rs.3,760 crore for 2014-15 on the grounds that its kharif crop had been impacted adversely by a rainfall deficit in the range of 50 per cent in 2014 and 40 per cent in 2015. That the State government could not get the Centre to accede to this demand is an important campaign point of both the Congress and the Aam Admi Party (AAP), the main rivals of the SAD-BJP combine.In Uttar Pradesh, the campaign undertaken by the ruling Samajwadi Party’s (S.P.) adversaries, the BJP, the Congress, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is direct and its central thrust is the castigation of the Akhilesh Yadav-led government for its “failure” in uplifting rural Uttar Pradesh and protecting the interests of the farming community. The Congress has been active in this campaign, with party vice-president Rahul Gandhi taking out political yatras in Bundelkhand. In these yatras, Rahul Gandhi has trained his guns on the State government and the Union government, alleging that both governments were merely paying lip service to the interests of farmers and agricultural workers.
On its part, the S.P. government and its political machinery contended that decades of neglect had made the task of addressing rural distress difficult and that the Akhilesh Yadav government had initiated steps to bring relief in the medium and short term. According to several leaders of the S.P. as well as some bureaucrats, the relief measures were qualitatively much superior to what existed under earlier governments. Both Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Chief Secretary Alok Ranjan carried out visits to different parts of the region, meeting people with the professed aim of assessing the situation directly to evolve more effective relief measures.
The campaigns of Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav highlighted the farcical nature of the politicking carried out on rural distress and natural disasters. In early February, Akhilesh Yadav met a farmer, Acche Lal, in Madhopur village of Banda district in Bundelkhand and gave him Rs.2 lakh as financial assistance. How the meeting came about has an interesting back story that begins with Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with Acche Lal in 2008, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power at the Centre. At that time, too, Bundelkhand was going through distress and Acche Lal had lost his crops and his son and was in penury. Rahul Gandhi was on one of his visits to the region and Acche Lal was taken to meet him. The Congress leader promised government assistance in terms of compensation for his lost crops and for rebuilding his dilapidated hut. Nothing happened over the next eight years. Acche Lal’s experience was published in some language publications, and Akhilesh Yadav lost no time in locating the 58-year-old Dalit to take up his case. Both Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi are planning more visits to the region to continue their campaigns.
While the campaigns of the S.P. and the Congress around the distress in Bundelkhand are high profile in 2016, those of the BJP and the BSP are yet to take off. According to a number of social activists and observers of the region, local BJP leaders are being taunted by people to live up to the promises made during the Lok Sabha campaign. Addressing a series of meetings in the region at that time, Modi had stated that a Union government under him would ensure that both the “taqdeer and tasveer” (destiny and face) of Bundelkhand was changed as never before. “What have you done in one and a half years,” goes the refrain among people as they confront local BJP leaders.
Similar questions are reportedly asked of BJP leaders in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh too. In Maharashtra, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) launched a campaign demanding a farm loan waiver in Vidarbha and other drought-hit regions. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis rejected it on the plea that a loan waiver was not a solution as it only involved 25 to 30 per cent of the farmers. He said the government was planning short-, medium- and long-term measures that would make agriculture a sustainable enterprise.
As the political duels continue, both verbally and in terms of action such as the one initiated by Akhilesh Yadav at Madhopur, the one factor highlighted by Pritam Choudhary comes up starkly and repeatedly: The conspicuous failure of political parties of various hues to come up with a tangible and detailed plan to address rural distress comprehensively taking regional disparities and special necessities into consideration.