By Prof Devi Prasad Juvvadi
The failure of both the UPA and the NDA to fulfil the aspirations of the people and sectors across the country, including agriculture, has created space for the regional parties to emerge with new hope and dimension in the process of development as they focus on local issues and challenges.
The political fragmentation and the rise of regional political parties has been one of the most important trends in India’s electoral politics in the last few decades. The regional parties that were marginal players on the national scene helped form national governments in 2004 and 2009.
Regionalism is no longer viewed as a negation of nationalism or nation-building. Leaders of the regional parties have started playing an active, and even deterministic, role in the organisation of the Central government. Again, momentum is picking up to unite regional parties and their combined strength may force national parties to forge alliances with them. Recent meetings between regional party leaders have been focusing on leadership. While leadership is important, it is policies, programmes, institutions and people’s participation that is critical to attracting and bringing people together.
What is required is not mere fronts and alliances but a renewed commitment to common problems. Only common issues can bring regional parties onto a platform and one such is agriculture, because government policies, both under UPA and NDA regimes, not only neglected agriculture with a lack of will to stand with farmers but also played an active role in deepening the crisis. The farmer has reached the brink of despair, and what they are experiencing is something which is beyond an agrarian crisis. Agrarian and rural dissent can be politically challenging and elections in five States in 2018 reminded parties of how dissatisfied farmers could derail all electoral calculations.
India continues to be a predominantly agriculture-based economy with over 60% of the population still dependent on the sector. Thus, the community’s disenchantment with any party can be a serious cause for concern. Over 300 seats of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha are from rural areas. The link between agriculture and elections was visible in some States and the agricultural crisis was touted as one of the main reasons for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s loss in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Regional parties opposing the BJP can use this opportunity to reinvent themselves, incorporating the lessons learned from healthy regional parties, such as the need to build durable, agile organisational structures.
Indian farming desperately needs reforms. Agriculture in the country is confronted with high price volatility, climate risks and indebtedness. As 86% of the farmers are small and marginal with declining and fragmenting landholdings, these uncertainties make them even more vulnerable and risk-prone. A long-term solution to agrarian distress lies in improving farm productivity through a series of measures like mass irrigation programmes through the interlinking of rivers, diversification of agriculture and smart farming. In short term, a farm-centric economy and farmer-centric interventions should be the focus of regional parties to achieve global standards in productivity.
The three farm laws introduced last year appeared to be radical but without any support for the farmer during the transition period. They were also without building consensus with the States and were rammed and withdrawn without alternative steps. For farmers, there is no clarity on how the existing system will be improved, if and how the agricultural policy will evolve and whether we can expect a positive change under this government.
India’s diversity should prompt the regional parties to adopt a federal approach to agriculture and allow State governments to decide the course of action in their regions. It requires bringing the farmers of the country into consensus and discussing federal solutions for agriculture.
The Congress leadership despite having the resources, manpower and considerable vote base has failed to be an alternative to the BJP and its future seems bleak beyond doubt. It is proven that a weak Congress and disunited regional parties keep the BJP in power. The regional parties have brilliant thinkers, smart managers, crafty communicators, leaders with a solid mass base, and moneybags such as K Chandrashekhar Rao, Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar. But these are individual leaders and political entrepreneurs. However, there is no person or process to gather it all together and turn it into a collective strength that could be deployed to save the republic.
Since 2024 will be, by far, the most crucial election, beginning early to get all these factors right is indispensable for the regional parties. These parties can easily convince the farming communities and thus, retain a stronghold over these States for the upcoming elections. The regional parties that are in power in different States need to work on building their own distinctive model of governance by putting forth the work that was done in States like Telangana.
The unity of the farmers that is essential for leaders of regional parties cannot be achieved automatically but with long-term relationship building, historically shared struggles, and concrete work to identify shared and common agendas in farming. This requires building broader movements and continuing cooperation between the farmer organisations.
Chandrashekhar Rao has the experience and track record to fundamentally change the agricultural model of India and catapult it into economic prosperity if the political climate at the national level enables this positive change. Under the circumstances, Rao highlighting farming issues to unify regional parties and exposing national parties which protect their power and privilege in the garb of democracy, secularism, and social justice, is a welcome step in a vibrant democracy.