3 years


The Battle for Punjab

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Who will harvest the anger? A state in flux

IN THE LAST seven years, Amrik Singh has lost his crop three times to inclement weather, unseasonal rain and drought. The gnarled face of this once prosperous farmer in Punjab’s Patiala district betrays anxiety and anger at the same time. “It is the policy of the Punjab government and the Centre not to let the farmer live but not to let him die either,” he says, when asked about who is to blame for his fate.

Sitting among a group of fellow villagers, this farmer shies away from answering how much money he has borrowed. It is considered shameful to disclose such things in public. But one can gauge Amrik Singh’s distress from the fact that he has mortgaged a substantial portion of his landholding. He lets this slip in a moment of weakness when others are not listening.

“The farmers of Punjab are of hardy stock and can face adversity calmly. But in recent decades, the extent of corruption has magnified to such an extent that it has broken our backs,” says Ranbir Singh, another farmer. He knows this first hand: by mutual agreement, he wanted to exchange two acres of his land with another farmer, a simple process that required payment of Rs 500 to the revenue department. He was charged Rs 25,000.

With so much anger among them, have they thought of their political options for the state elections due early next year? What are their expectations from the party that will form the next government? “We’ve tried every party,” says Amrik Singh. “At one time, I was with Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s party). Then I tried Captain (Amarinder Singh, Congress leader and former CM). They make nice promises and we always believed them. They don’t look back once at us after they enter Chandigarh (the state capital).”

So what now?

One does not need to go far in search of an answer. The local shop where the group is sitting is decked with posters of Arvind Kejriwal, resplendent with his broom. Almost to a man, the group says it will vote for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) this time round.

It is tough to argue with people who are angry about their rationale for choosing one party over another and their reasons for doing so. But their responses on why they favour AAP reveals a lot about how people in rural Punjab perceive current events:

“We have only one medium that tells us what is going on: TV. We know about AAP. We also know how both governments (in Punjab and at the Centre) have been rattled by this party. That is why they are arresting their legislators on flimsy grounds.”

Both the timing of these words and the place they are uttered should alert anyone to the changing winds in Punjab. These remarks came soon after the arrest of Naresh Yadav, the AAP MLA from Mehrauli in Delhi. That the event evokes comment in Kapuri, a village in Punjab closely associated with Sikh nationalist— even separatist—sentiment adds to their significance.

Viewed on the map, Punjab looks like a misshapen triangle. Kapuri is tucked away near the state’s south-eastern edge. The village is closer to Ambala in Haryana than any other urban agglomeration in Punjab. It is the site of a bitter and contentious irrigation project, one allegedly designed to ‘steal’ water from Punjab and give it to its lower riparian neighbour. Kapuri is famous for the launch of the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal project, initiated by Indira Gandhi in 1982. Two years later, Gandhi was assassinated by her guards at the peak of a protracted insurgency in Punjab that was fuelled by discontent for which the SYL project was arguably one of the factors. The political significance of all this is not lost on the SAD, the state’s current ruling party. Even today, almost as a reflex, SAD tends to launch agitations at this site against an ‘unjust Centre’, or any other grievance, real or imagined.

It is late noon and the radio is blaring 15-20 second ‘political advertisements’ interspersed between popular numbers. In one such intermission, Chief Minister Badal proclaims that he will not allow the construction of the SYL canal. Short of saying ‘SYL over my dead body’, he throws whatever expressions he can muster at what he believes is an issue that will resonate with Punjab’s farmers. But, perhaps sensing the ephemeral traction of the topic, he has other strategies to keep his flock together.

At 328 feet, Fateh Burj—the ‘tower of victory’—is taller than the Qutub Minar. It is a monument to a famous Sikh victory in 1711 against the Mughals. Located at Chappar Chiri village, some 15 km from Chandigarh, the tower is meant to impress onlookers with its grandeur. Its gigantic arches almost convey an Islamic touch. The huge mounds in the complex atop which sculptures of Sikh warriors rest are equally impressive. From afar, the image of Bhai Aali Singh—a famous Sikh general—almost looks like a Saracenic cavalryman, resplendent in his armour.

That, however, is not the image that visitors and curators of the site have in mind. “There are three levels in the Burj, each for the victory and vengeance unleashed by the Sikh army on the Mughals for the wrongs heaped on them,” says the young guide at the memorial, with a tinge of pride in her voice.

Even visitors who are a hazy about Sikh history are impressed. “I am from Mehraj (about 200 km from Chandigarh),” says Sukhpal Singh. “It is brilliant, is all that I can say.”

Monuments like Fateh Burj are designed to evoke such pride in Sikhism among Punjab’s people. Barely 60 km away lies the equally majestic Khalsa Heritage Complex in Anandpur Sahib, another place suffused with history and meaning for Sikhs. No expense was spared in building it, the first phase alone costing Rs 225 crore. The overall cost of these projects—numbering around ten—is in the region of Rs 1,500 crore by one estimate.

These are not the only ‘memory’ projects in the state, and nor have they been built on the eve of the Assembly elections. It is just that they are approaching completion just before the state votes. The idea is like that of a slow-burning candle that does not go out.

Is it working?

Barely a kilometre from the Fateh Burj lies Chappar Chiri, the actual site of the battle in 1711. Even from the monument, one can see the domes of the local gurdwara. Immeasurably modest by the standards of the Burj, the gurdwara has a much warmer feel to it. The very first thing that is on offer is lunch at the langar. The gurdwara is incomplete, with marble tiles and cement bags scattered behind its rear wall. “When the Burj was being built, we would feed the 800 labourers three times a day. We have never asked for anything from the government. By God’s grace, no one goes hungry in his abode,” says Baba Lakhvinder Singh, the caretaker of the place. “What pains me is that the Badals did not visit the actual site where the Sikhs defeated the Mughals even once. Forget helping us build the gurdwara, even the daal (lentils) used at the langar are sent by our devotees from Delhi.”

By noontime, the shadow of the grand Burj overpowers the modest silhouette of the gurdwara. But in the real world, the relationship between architectural magnificence and political influence is dodgy, at best, even if the effort to achieve it is powerful.

Punjab is in a fiscally parlous condition. It has been placed in the ‘highly indebted’ category. But this situation has not led the state to remedy its expenditure pattern

So another, more realistic strategy is called for. And the SAD has had one for more than a decade.

The Chief Minister’s sangat darshan is an omnibus programme that provides a one-stop solution for virtually all the problems that people living in rural areas may have. Organised in a meet-the-CM format, Badal uses the platform to literally dispense cash to villagers for any works their village may require. From constructing the phirni (boundary markers) of the village to other repairs, the programme has been on since the early years of this century.

No breakdown of the amount spent on the exercise is available, but the sums are so large that money has been borrowed from statutory resources such as the state’s Rural Development Fund (RDF) and Punjab Infrastructure Development Board (PIDB), the agency mandated to create roads and other vital infrastructure. The RDF is funded by imposing a rural development fee on agricultural produce sold in a notified market area. The PIDB has in the past borrowed from capital markets and also sources money from a cess on petrol and an infrastructure fee on agricultural produce.

“The trouble with the sangat darshan programme is that it virtually short-circuits the entire administrative machinery,” says a senior secretary in the state government who does not wished to be named. “In Punjab there is elaborate administrative machinery, from the state Planning Board that sets down developmental priorities, down to the deputy commissioners who are supposed to execute these plans. What project is to be taken up has to have logic to it based on the overall development of the state. Sangat darshan is hollowing out all this.”

Worse, Punjab is in a fiscally parlous condition. The Reserve Bank of India’s report on ‘State Finances for 2015-16’ pegs the state’s gross fiscal deficit at 3 per cent of its gross state domestic product, higher than the 2.4 per cent all-India average for major states. Punjab has also been placed along with Kerala and West Bengal in the ‘highly indebted’ category. But this situation has not led the state to remedy its expenditure pattern. “If anything, the way in which expenditure is managed has altered for the worse. Ad- hocism has crept into the manner in which bills are paid and this is a result of the systemic mismanagement that has crept in,” adds the civil servant.

In Kapuri, Amrik Singh has complaints to air. “I wish Badal sahib would come to our village,” he says, “We have a 25-bed hospital but no doctors. The only government doctor here has managed to get himself transferred on ‘deputation’ to Patiala while he continues to get his salary from this centre. We are less than a kilometre away from the Narwana branch canal (which sends water to Haryana under a water-sharing agreement with that state), but we have no water to drink, let along irrigate our fields. The water level here is 500 feet below ground level.”

This is a danger that is inherent in any top-down, discretionary developmental programme. And sangat darshan is no different. While the Congress and AAP allege that it is calculated to get political mileage, the danger of the programme being uneven—leaving some people out while overcompensating others—is very real. For example, there are allegations that Patiala district has been covered to a less extent because it is the home turf of Badal’s political rival Amarinder Singh.

IT IS IN THIS witch’s brew of agrarian disaffection, SAD’s slightly weakened hold over Punjab’s religious politics, and the Congress party’s slumber that Arvind Kejriwal’s cohorts have found a handle to stir themselves a magic spell. In the 2014 General Election, AAP won four seats in Punjab. Never mind the dissidence that has crept into the state unit since then, the party is still attracting support. As in Delhi, the people joining the party are mostly successful urban professionals—from so-called civil society— who are keen to perform a ‘positive’ role in politics. This is a group that has tasted professional success but has no room in established political parties.

Consider two of AAP’s leaders in Punjab.

In Patiala, Dr Balbir Singh is the party’s zone coordinator. Before joining AAP, he was a successful ophthalmologist who ran a private hospital well known for its charitable work. In addition, the doctor ran an NGO that was engaged in environmental restoration work in the city. “We are here to change politics for the good of Punjab. I was the agent of Dr Dharamveer Gandhi, who won the Patiala Lok Sabha seat for AAP,” he says. Gandhi has turned dissident since then. “Our priority is to root out corruption from the state. Then we can focus on the pressing problems of Punjab,” says Dr Balbir Singh in response to a question on his party’s priorities. “We will give it a fight and we [in AAP] are known to be gutsy fighters.” This zone coordinator is confident of his party’s chances in the forthcoming election, perhaps a bit too overly so with about half a year still to go for the polls. But his enthusiasm is clear.

The story of Himmat Singh Shergill, a state-level leader of the party in Chandigarh, is remarkably similar. Like Balbir Singh, he too is a successful urban professional. A lawyer trained at the Inns-of-Court in London, he is proud that he attended the same institutions as Nehru and Gandhi.

The thing to note about these leaders—both Balbir Singh and Shergill—is that their responses seem rehearsed to perfection, perhaps overly so.

On being asked about what his party would do to improve Punjab’s financial health in case it got a chance to govern the state, Shergill’s answer is lawyerly: “We are all putting our heads into the issue. We will soon issue a manifesto. We have an able leader in Mr [Arvind] Kejriwal and I am sure we will sort out the issue.”

Will Kejriwal come to Punjab as a chief minister and solve its problems now that he is increasingly transferring responsibilities to his lieutenants like Manish Sisodia? “That is not the case. Mr Kejriwal told us that the people of Delhi have chosen him for five years and that he is committed to working in Delhi. But you can be sure that the same ideology that is working on in Delhi will also be brought to Punjab,” Shergill says.

Once again, as in Delhi, so too in Patiala and Chandigarh. Rooting out corruption is held as the party’s panacea for all problems that plague Punjab. “It is a vicious cycle. Once we have an honest government, then things will begin to fall in place… some kind of revolution has to come in India,” adds Shergill.

It is a strange situation that Punjab finds itself in. The state was one of India’s early developmental successes after Independence. It is also probably the first rich state in the country that, instead of getting richer, is becoming poorer by the day, notwithstanding its magnificent monuments and highly successful urban class. Due to a series of complex reasons—and mistakes—Punjab finds itself in an economic cul de sac: too dependent on agriculture and unable to diversify its cropping pattern, it also lacks a political leadership that will think for the state and not the success of a particular political party. The SAD is now so adept at getting the most political mileage through bang-for-the-buck construction and patronage programmes that it has forgotten the distinction between what is good for Punjab and what is good for it. The Congress is yet to outline a new programme (or any, for that matter), and the AAP has leaders who are confident about ‘doing a Delhi’ in Chandigarh but not so sure about what the state needs. It is in this vortex that Punjab lurches forward to elections in 2017.