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Posted at: May 25, 2019, 6:46 AM; last updated: May 25, 2019, 6:46 AM (IST)

Capt should focus on border districts, farm crisis

PPS Gill

PPS Gill
The poll results of Punjab reflect that the voters have not yet forgotten or forgiven the SAD-BJP for its 10-year misrule, which saw a spurt in drug trafficking; gangs and gangsters having a free run; sacrilege incidents that hurt the sensitivities and sensibilities of the Sikhs; monopoly of the ruling Badal family and its clan over an assortment of businesses etc.
Capt should focus on border districts, farm crisis
First step: The Chief Minister introduced the loan waiver scheme to help farmers partially get rid of the debt burden.

PPS Gill
Senior journalist and former Information Commissioner

If the BJP-led NDA has scripted a new political chapter with its spectacular show for the second successive term, so has Punjab. It has also pretty successfully thwarted the advance of the saffron storm for the second time. The Congress showcased its performance in ‘good governance’.

The reason behind the BJP winning two seats is simple: Gurdaspur, of which Pathankot is a part, are both border districts. Also, the neighbouring Himachal Pradesh has an influence over their socio-economy, as well as in the Hoshiarpur constituency.  Since there is dominance of Hindu voters in these two constituencies, the Modi wave lifted its candidates. The saffron surge stopped at the Punjab boundary elsewhere. The reason why the BJP lost Amritsar is also simple. There is a dominance of ex-servicemen and their families and the Sikh peasantry. 

Also, after the Pulwama terror attack, India withdrew ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status from Pakistan, affecting businesses across the Attari border. After February 14, all trade with Pakistan was stopped. Consequently, 200-250 trucks without goods were parked near the border after the government imposed 200 per cent regulatory duty on non-essential Indian imports. This further diminished the chances of the BJP candidate winning the election.

The results reflect that the voters have not yet forgotten or forgiven the SAD-BJP for its 10-year misrule, which saw a spurt in drug trafficking; gangs and gangsters having a free run; sacrilege incidents that hurt the sensitivities and sensibilities of the Sikhs; monopoly of the ruling Badal family and its clan over an assortment of businesses etc.

So, what enabled Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to weather the Hindutva wind, politicisation of the armed forces, and making capital out of the surgical strikes? Being a military historian, Amarinder ensured this political trick did not play out in the sensitive border state that shares a 553-km border with Pakistan. Its six border districts were put on high alert in the wake of the Indian Air Force’s strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Pakistan in February. The CM met civil and police officers and decided against any evacuation. Rather, as a confidence-building measure, he visited the border areas from Pathankot to Ferozepur by road, meeting people. That stirred a sympathy wave in favour of the Congress.

In Punjab, ex-servicemen number 2.9 lakh approximately (Parliament question-answer in March 2017). The number of farmers is around 19 lakh (Government of India-2011). Together, soldiering and farming families constitute a sizeable vote bank. Since taking over as CM in March 2017, Capt Amarinder Singh has done his bit to address the grievances of these two segments of society.

What must stir the conscience of the state political leadership now is the urgent need for development in these border districts, which are deprived of industries and businesses. This means no employment opportunities. Studies have revealed that the per capita income of people in these districts is 30 per cent less than in the other districts.

The problem of cultivation of land across the barbed fence is another live issue. It is doubtful if the political dispensation in New Delhi would be favourably inclined to help Punjab develop the border districts. Because who will raise or listen to Punjab’s voice in Parliament on development issues when the two SAD members are in the BJP’s lap? Congress MPs will have a tough time in making themselves heard.

Regarding farming families’ welfare, the first step the CM took was to introduce a loan waiver scheme to help farmers partially get rid of the debt burden and avert suicides. A PAU economist, Prof Sukhpal Singh, says the debt on Punjab farmers is Rs 1 lakh crore, out of which Rs 80,000 crore is institutional.  So far, under the loan waiver scheme, the government has waived Rs 3,400 crore institutional loans of small farmers, owning up to five acres.  

Cognisance must be taken at the way 100-odd gangs stand neutralised, thereby showing an improvement in the law and order situation; and strident steps taken to checkmate the menace of drug trafficking. All these measures paid dividends and contributed to the poll results favouring the Congress. 

Then a political advantage that came the Congress way in the form of the breaking away of some senior Akali leaders from SAD, holding senior and junior Badal responsible for seeking support of Dera Sacha Sauda, headed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, during Harsimrat Badal’s elections and also later orchestrating his ‘pardon’ from Akal Takht. That move badly misfired. The high priests had to withdraw their decision to exonerate the sect head. The Badals were held guilty of either not taking any action against culprits in sacrilege cases or going slow on investigation. Calling themselves ‘Taksali’ Akalis, the breakaway group made a lot of noise for months, tried alliances with political entities and individuals, and finally entered the poll arena. This added to the undoing of the Badals’ SAD. People don’t forgive netas for their misdemeanours. 

Its second political advantage was the dismemberment and dissipation of AAP within five years, making it easy for the voters to decide whom to vote for.

In the wake of the elections, expecting any goodwill gestures from New Delhi is farfetched. Punjab’s political economy is in a crisis due to agrarian distress. As a political lightweight, Punjab will face difficulties to make its presence felt at the Centre. Within the state, political leadership, across the spectrum, has lost the will to set the house in order or spring-clean key administrative corners. 

Also, there are not enough agro-or- food processing industries in the state. There are only two mega food parks, one each at Fazilka and Ludhiana. Agriculture is becoming unremunerative. 

There are whispers in the air that the NDA government will work on available reports to pass on foodgrain procurement to private traders, rather than let the Food Corporation of India continue to procure from the states. A veiled warning on this is mentioned in the Punjab state farmers’ policy draft document (June 2018) that is pending approval with the government.  A region-specific MSP targeted procurement for each state is likely to be introduced. This will adversely affect the states having better productivity, like Punjab. This is a challenge which stares the CM in the face. 

The other problem is of unemployment among rural youth. This is fuelling the menace of drug consumption. But things are beginning to look up on this score. In January, the Punjab and Haryana High Court issued 25 ‘mandatory’ directions to the state government, including registering cases against drug smugglers under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, and deployment of police officials around educational institutions for eradicating the menace.

The broad public perception is that effective intervention to reach out to debt-ridden farmers, listening to ex-servicemen, taking steps to curb drug trafficking, better law and order situation and will to govern helped the Congress do well in the elections. 

What role and how effectively the 13 elected representatives play to enable Punjab to regain its lost dignity and glory, and overcome its politico-economic situation, remains to be seen.

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