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In for a peasant surprise?

In for a peasant surprise?

For someone who had finally been embraced by his party and anointed its new poster boy, Finance Minister P Chidambaram seemed awfully truculent a day after the Union Budget. Perhaps, it was the economist in him who was worried about abandoning fiscal responsibility at the altar of hand-outs. Maybe, it was the lawyer in him who was tired of making out a case as to why he had decided on a Rs. 60,000 crore farm loan waiver to be written off in just four months. Or maybe, the politician in him was aware that historically election budgets don’t always bring in votes. Or maybe, he was just fatigued of pesky journalists asking him where he was going to get the money to fund his sop machine. Finally, in a moment of candour, the Finance Minister admitted that he would rather not face election pressures every year when delivering a Budget, and that state and general elections should be held once every five years at the same time.

Contrast the discomfort of Chidambaram with the euphoria that his Budget seems to have generated within the ruling alliance. The queues of party workers waiting to get a darshan at 10 Janpath have lengthened, with farmers from Haryana leading the way in genuflecting before the Congress leadership. Posters announcing Rahul Gandhi as the ‘kisan ka neta’ have sprung up. Tired of their leader being accused of spending too much time on the cricket field, Sharad Pawar’s NCP has also joined the chorus, with full page ads lavishing praise on the Agriculture Minister. In Parliament, there is a spring in the step of the treasury benches, almost as if the chill of a nuclear winter has now been magically transformed into a possible monsoon of contentment.

To an extent, the celebratory air around the UPA leadership is justified. After facing a mauling in state elections in 2007 (the tally reads UPA 0, Opposition 5), the central government has been desperately looking for an issue that could spur a momentum shift. The original hope had been that an aggressive pro-reservation agenda would effect the change. But in an environment of competitive reservation politics, the Congress can hardly claim proprietorial rights on reservations. An Arjun Singh may have used it to build his identity, but the party was less inclined to follow suit. The Sachar Committee’s recommendations on minorities were seen as another attempt at recapturing a traditional Congress vote-bank. But here too, there has been some hesitancy in allowing the Opposition to revive the plank of minority appeasement. An 8 per cent-plus economic growth rate was a possible calling card, but the fear of a ‘India Shining’-like campaign boomeranging on the government was enough to spark off a defensive reaction.

Enter the kisan: the traditional, ubiquitous symbol of the aam aadmi. Much like the Indian soldier, the farmer is seen as a conscience-keeper of a nation; agriculture is seen as an occupation that is part of India’s moral core, the true grit of its people. Such are the romantic notions that are still attached to land and farming that, even in multiplex India, a Do Bigha Zameen can continue to evoke a strong emotional connect. The ‘rural areas’ are a mantra to be chanted whenever a moral point needs to be made. The backward-forward reservation debate can be divisive, as can the majority-minority equation, or the ‘India Shining’ slogan. But who would dare question the right of the Indian farmer to demand more, especially when farmer suicides are no longer just statistical data, but a grim reminder of the failures of the State to build a more humane society? Any attempt to question a loan waiver to farmers can be politically disastrous in an agrarian society.

Contrast ‘farmer-first’ politics with national security and terrorism — the BJP’s pet project — and it seems that the terms of political engagement are heavily weighed in favour of the UPA leadership. The fear of the terrorist is real, and there is growing evidence of the dangers of ‘home-grown’ terrorism, and of the rising clout of Naxal groups. But while the ‘soft on terror’ propaganda may appeal to the BJP’s core middle-class constituency, it does not resonate with the same vigour across the country. By contrast, farmers’ issues cut across geographical barriers, with the result that they offer a political party an opportunity to set the national agenda by appealing to the bulk of the rural populace.

And yet, if the UPA believes it has found the mantra to electoral success, it could well be guilty of premature celebration. If farm loan waivers were enough to pile up the votes, then the likes of Devi Lal, Charan Singh and Deve Gowda would have had permanent access to power. Kisan politics can be a dangerous double-edged sword: while it can provide opportunity, it can also quickly become a source of despair. One of the biggest dangers that confronts political parties at election time is the principle of rising expectations, with failure to deliver resulting in what is now universally condemned as ‘anti-incumbency’. By promising to complete the entire loan waiver scheme by June  30, the government is setting itself up for the possibility of encouraging a wave of unrealistic expectations among farmers, and then finding itself trapped when it is unable to deliver on deadlines and demands. And what of those thousands of  indebted farmers who will lose out because they remain outside the institutional credit system?

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To understand just what can go wrong, look no further than the UPA’s original Rs. 12,000 crore flagship programme: the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme. The first reality check done by the Comptroller and Auditor General shows that barely 3.2 per cent of the registered households could avail of the 100 days of employment in the first year of the programme. The average employment provided under the scheme was just 18 days as against the promised 100 days. Ironically, the data on financial assistance under the NREG Act (NREGA) showed that the performance of non-Congress ruled states in implementing the programme was better than of the Congress-ruled states. A recent television story exposed how even in the Gandhi family bastion of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the NREGA projects were caught in a web of bureaucracy and corruption. Will an even more extensive loan waiver scheme also become a victim of its own ambition? A morally acceptable idea if badly implemented can be a recipe for disaster.

Moreover, the reality of contemporary electoral politics is such that it requires more than just the announcement of farmer-friendly schemes to translate intention into votes. While eyeing a 2008 election, the UPA needs to ask itself: does it have the organisational muscle to translate the Chidambaram Budget into an electoral victory? Can a Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Discovery of India’ yatra be enough to galvanise a dormant political organisation? Is there any evidence on the ground that the party is on the comeback trail in politically influential states like UP and Bihar? In the 2004 elections, in the 12 largest states of the country, the Congress won just 100 of the 440 seats on offer. Can the Congress claim with any conviction that there is at least one large state where it is guaranteed a sweeping victory in the polls? And are key allies like the DMK and the RJD confident of repeating their 2004 performance this time round?

Perhaps, no one knows this uncertain political roulette better than the Finance Minister who comes from a state where the Congress organisation is decaying. With J Jayalalithaa threatening another potential comeback, Chidambaram should be aware that his future, and that of his party, could be determined by political forces that have little connection with the Budget. The momentum in Parliament may have shifted to the UPA after the kisan chemistry in the Budget. But in the dusty tracks of Sivaganga, it could well be alliance arithmetic, not budgetary chemistry, that will determine the fate of the next Lok Sabha.

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