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Electoral Politics in Post-Conflict Societies: Case of Punjab

Electoral Politics in Post-Conflict Societies: Case of Punjab

The Akali Dal and the Congress followed different agendas to recapture legitimacy in Punjab after the violence of the 1980s. The aftermath of militancy and the generalised discontent with the Akali Dal and the Congress provided both the parties with an opportunity to reinvent their agendas. But both continued with their usual politics, putting critical economic issues on the back burner. Return to peace, elimination of corruption and need for a religious Punjab governed by religious parties were their usual themes. In all, the impending agrarian crisis was put aside, secondary to assuming office. This only says that the nature of politics in a post-conflict society like Punjab remains indeterminate, confined to the making and unmaking of governments.

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Electoral Politics in Post-Conflict Societies:

Case of Punjab

The Akali Dal and the Congress followed different agendas to recapture legitimacy in Punjab after the violence of the 1980s. The aftermath of militancy and the generalised discontent with the Akali Dal and the Congress provided both the parties with an opportunity to reinvent their agendas. But both continued with their usual politics, putting critical economic issues on the back burner. Return to peace, elimination of corruption and need for a religious Punjab governed by religious parties were their usual themes. In all, the impending agrarian crisis was put aside, secondary to assuming office. This only says that the nature of politics in a post-conflict society like Punjab remains indeterminate, confined to the making and unmaking of governments.


he central question in and for post-conflict societies is a deeply political one: what are the ways in which societies, wracked by political unrest and militancy, return to “normal” ways of doing politics? One way in which this can be done is through elections. Elections, which arguably constitute the signpost of democracy, acquire special salience in post-conflict societies simply because they are reassuring; they assure citizens that their interests and their opinions count, despite the fact that some of these citizens may have taken up arms, or supported the armed conflict against the state. Secondly, elections provide an honourable exit from mutually exhausting confrontation, because they promise that former adversaries still have a chance of exercising influence through political participation. Elections, therefore, perform the function of reconciliation because they (a) indicate that citizen’s matter, and (b) provide avenues for the exercise of power through means other than war. For these reasons, elections may well succeed in healing rifts within societies that have suffered serious trauma, and in restoring societies, in which groups have pursued politics through armed struggle, to democratic politics.

A study of electoral processes in Punjab in the aftermath of militancy is, we consider, significant for two reasons. For one, such a study helps us to understand what electoral politics in post-conflict societies look like. What is the nature of the political/ electoral rhetoric in post-conflict societies? What issues did the parties focus on and what did they neglect? Did perchance the focus on returning the state to “normalcy”, marginalise substantive matters such as reconstructing the living and the working environment? Secondly, a study of the post-conflict electoral process in Punjab is of some interest, because the two main political parties – the Akali Dal (AD) and the Congress – had been badly compromised in the eyes of the electorate. Consider that 26 per cent of the respondents in a survey conducted by our research team in Amritsar district in 2004 felt that political parties were responsible in some way or the other for the outbreak of conflict. Eighty-six per cent of the respondents who blamed political parties opined that the conflict was due to the fact that no party addressed the issue of basic needs, and 43.5 per cent of the same category believed that the conflict had a lot to do with these parties being corrupt.1

Moreover, the Akali Dal was compromised because the conflict was contained without a single demand of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution being met. The resolution which had inaugurated the centre-state conflict in the late 1970s, and which gave an initial boost to militancy, may well never have happened. On the other hand, the Congress which was in power at the centre during much of the period of the conflict, was the very party that had sanctioned the use of brute force to suppress militancy, the party whose leaders had launched Operation Blue Star, and the party whose leaders were involved in the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984. But in 1992 the Congress had to face the Punjab electorate as an aspirant for power. How did these two parties reinsert themselves into electoral politics, through what means, through the use of which idiom of politics? How did they bring back the state to normal ways of doing politics?

Conceivably, the aftermath of militancy which had messed up the state for over 12 years, as well as the generalised discontent with both the AD and the Congress, provided both parties with an opportunity to reinvent their agendas and recast their images. The urgent need to mainstream people who had been living under the shadow of the gun for well over a decade should have occasioned serious reflection on what paths to pursue and what roads not to take. Both parties should have shown determination to address and negotiate the substantive problems of a society that had lost out on both lives and livelihoods during the conflict; to prove that the interests of the citizens matter, and to establish that elections are much more than jostling to get into power. But the AD and the Congress continued to be bogged down by their usual way of doing electoral politics in the three elections which followed the decline of militancy in Punjab. This study of the electoral strategy of the two main parties shows as much. Resultantly, critical economic issues that had begun to impact the lives of the people in the last years of the decade of the 1980s were put onto the back-burner. In particular, the agrarian crisis was simply not addressed in any of the three elections that followed the containment of militancy in the state in 1992, 1997 and 2002.

We make a point of this because across the world conflict theorists as well as policy-makers suggest that the only way to bring conflict ridden societies back to normalcy, is to either invent democracy wherever this form of government does not exist, or to restore democracy where it does exist. Central to the solutions on offer are regular elections, competitive party politics, the rule of law and the institutionalisation of civil and political rights. These mechanisms provide for both participation and inclusiveness within the framework of rights and institutions. Oddly enough, this suggestion has been made at a time when electoral democracy itself has come to be bedevilled by the “crisis of representation”. The crisis of representation thesis holds that bureaucratic and rigid parties, whose only focus is on acquiring and retaining power, are simply incapable of representing the interests of the citizens adequately and competently.2 More importantly, not only is electoral politics mainly about the acquisition of power, electoral strategies are fashioned according to the immediate political context: an assassination of a prime minister here, the building of a temple there, the return to peace here, the need to suppress terrorism there. That often, if not inevitably, big issues are privileged at the expense of substantive issues which pertain to everyday life is not unsurprising.

This is precisely what happened in Punjab. The agrarian crisis has neither been reflected in, nor set the terms of debate for electoral processes in the state. These processes have been dominated by the call to return to peace in the first instance, and by interparty competition on the other. Consequently, we find a marked dissonance between political economy and electoral processes in Punjab, with the former hardly influencing the latter. This is somewhat worrying because since the late 1980s it has become clear that agriculture, which is the mainstay of the Punjab economy, is in serious trouble. The predicament of the agrarian sector continues to mount even as the main political parties in the state continue to talk past the needs of the rural population. In sum, the dynamics of electoral politics may well have little to do with the need to represent critical demands and interests of the citizens. These dynamics may have everything to do with getting into power and with seeking legitimacy and about little else. Electoral politics in post-conflict societies make this more than clear.

Post-Conflict Electoral Politics

The political context of the elections to the state assembly in Punjab in 19923 was characterised by three factors, all of which combined to draw politics in the direction of indeterminacy. Firstly, the central government, which was at that time controlled by the Congress Party, held resolutely that elections should be held to the state legislative assembly even though militancy had not yet been completely contained. Secondly, the militants called for a boycott of the elections and threatened the use of violence against any person who dared to cast a vote. Thirdly, the Akali Dal, which had by that time fragmented into a number of groups, boycotted the elections. Only AD (K) – the faction led by Amarinder Singh – contested the elections. The process of holding the elections was deeply marred by violence, and elections could take place after a number of abortive moves that cost not a few candidates their lives. For instance when the central government tried to hold elections both to the state assembly and to Parliament in June 1991, 28 candidates were killed by militants.

Resultantly, the elections were countermanded in three Lok Sabha and 17 assembly constituencies before they were completely called off. When elections to the state assembly were finally held in 1992, a generalised environment of fear resulted in an all time low electoral participation with just 24 per cent of the electorate casting its vote.

The extraordinariness of the elections themselves, held as they were amidst violence and the call for a poll boycott, shaped the rhetoric and the electoral strategy of political parties. The first major bone of contention between the AD and the Congress was whether elections should be held at all. The Congress insisted that the return of “democratic” politics was an essential precondition for the return of peace. Various factions of the AD on the other hand argued that the elections could not be held for two reasons. Firstly all outstanding issues remained unresolved. Secondly, the overwhelming presence of security forces almost guaranteed that elections could not be free and fair. If we look at the position of pro-election parties, i e, the Congress, the Akali Dal (K) faction which was at that time led by Amarinder Singh,4 the CPI and other small parties on the one hand, and anti-election groups, i e, Akalis of different shades on the other, it is very clear that the fundamental difference between the two groups was the following: what should come first – popular government or peace? In other words, whereas the Akalis campaigned against the elections, participants in the electoral process were riding the peace plank.

The reluctance of all factions of the AD, except one, to contest elections is understandable; the Akalis could not ignore the boycott call given by militant groups. From the late 1970s militant groups had challenged the capacity of the AD to safeguard the interests of the state in general, and the Sikh community in particular, against the authoritarian proclivities of the central government. A “third” force had arisen in Punjab politics on the platform that the Akalis had not pressed the case for state autonomy and the interests of the panth, in the durbar of the central government either competently or seriously. To ignore the boycott call would have been to invite further political disaster. Secondly, the AD was in an embarrassing position because it had been unable to secure even one demand of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution – the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, control over irrigation projects, adequate support from the central government for agriculture, and above all the recasting of centre-state relations. What could it take to the people of Punjab? Why should the people vote for the AD considering that the confrontation between the party and the central government in the period 19771984 had come to naught?

Matters would have been different if the central government had given to the state an economic and political package that would have satisfied at least some of the demands of the resolution. But this did not happen. The reason why the Congress did not deliver such a package can be traced to political pragmatism and electoral calculations. For the grant of such a package would have practically guaranteed the return of the AD to state politics. As electoral strategies go, this was a masterstroke. Knowing that the announcement of such a package would give the Akalis reason to contest the elections, the Congress Party/ central government deliberately withheld it. It was clear that the idea was to facilitate a Congress win by forcing the Akalis to withdraw from the elections. And it was equally clear from the statements of Akali leaders that they wanted something concrete from the central government before they went to the electorate. It is worthwhile reflecting in this context that a special package for the state would have helped the moderate sections of Akalis to chart out a political agenda independent from that of extremist Akali groups, as well as from the militants. But in the absence of any concrete offer from the central government, the Akalis simply did not have the required political resources at their disposal to contest the elections.5 In effect the Congress virtually pushed the Akalis into boycotting the 1992 elections. For the Congress it simply made for good political sense to connect the grant of such a package with its own victory in the elections. To put it bluntly, the people of the state would be rewarded if they voted for the Congress.

The Congress came to power in the state with Beant Singh as the chief minister on a very thin electoral back up. Not only was the electoral turnout the lowest in the state which is otherwise marked by high voting turnouts; the turnout was the lowest in the last four decades of elections in India. This cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the government. Though it is difficult to distinguish between those who choose not to vote from those who did not vote out of fear, analysts believe that in the contest between the participants and the boycotters, the latter were the clear winners.6 The low turnout was interpreted by the Akalis as a victory of their boycott call rather than as a victory of the Congress Party. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India also argued that the legitimacy of the entire exercise was doubtful because of the low turnout.7 However, the Congress government did manage to complete its full terms of five years. It also remained faithful to the main plank of its electoral agenda

– peace. It was in pursuit of this nebulous concept termed peace that the Congress was to suppress militancy with an iron hand.

The political games played by the two parties in Punjab had the expected fallout. The AD continued to insist on the legitimacy deficit of the Congress and did not turn its attention to pressing economic issues. The Congress made the return of peace to the state its main concern. The only problem is that it defined restoration of “normalcy and peace” in strictly coercive terms; the agenda had no place for the social or the economic reconstruction of the state. The peace plank was simply not accompanied by any policy initiative for the long-term economic regeneration of the state. Admittedly, one constraint on the forging of this agenda was the resource crunch because a large part of the resources had been spent on containing the conflict. In the period between 1988 and 1993, the expenditure of the state government increased by approximately 17.5 per cent, but most of this increase went into fighting militancy.8 But this was not the only factor which fed into the neglect of economic and social issues; equally important was the way in which the government interpreted its mandate, that of restoring normalcy. Consequently, the promised economic package for the state remained unfulfilled and undelivered. And the impending agrarian crisis was completely ignored.

The Agrarian Crisis

The recognition that Punjab has been in the throes of an agrarian crisis since the late 1980s might seem perplexing, because since the 1960s the state has been marked by robust agricultural growth. In fact, our research does not find any negative correlation between conflict and economic growth during the highest phase of militancy from 1980 to 1992.9 Amritsar and Gurdaspur in the Majha region, Ludhiana in the Malwa region, and Jullunder in the Doaba region, all of which were high conflict areas, actually performed better than low conflict areas. For instance paddy production in Amritsar, which was categorised as the highest conflict area in the state, was lower than that of the low conflict district of Patiala in 1980: 615 metric tonnes per annum for the former and 793 metric tonnes per annum for the latter. By 1995 paddy production in Amritsar had increased compared to Patiala, the figure being 1,381 metric tonnes per annum for the former and 1,224 metric tonnes per annum for the latter. Similarly, wheat production in Amritsar district was 821 metric tonnes in 1980, compared to Patiala which produced 867 metric tonnes of wheat. But by 1995 the relevant figures are 1,476 for Punjab and 1,075 for Patiala.10

The gains of the green revolution had ensured that Punjab became a model state, the granary of India, and the locus of individual entrepreneurship, sheer grit and fortitude. This is remarkable when we recollect that the partition of Punjab in 1947 had irremediably scarred collective life in the region. As Hindus and Sikhs migrated from west to east Punjab, and as Muslims migrated to west Punjab, an estimated 300 thousand people were killed amidst intense communal strife and riots. Since 70 per cent of the rich agricultural economy of the canal colonies was transferred to Pakistan, Indian Punjab was turned into a food-deficit province. Further as Hindus and the Sikhs returned to east Punjab from where they had migrated to the canal colonies in the latter half of the 19th century, population pressures on the land soared. However, by the 1950s, agricultural production in Punjab had revived largely as a result of the adoption of prudent policies of land reform, reasonable but controlled compensation for property left behind in west Punjab, land consolidation and land ceiling acts. However, it was the introduction of the package of high yielding variety of seeds, irrigation, fertiliser, and pesticides that generated an agrarian revolution, the likes of which were just not seen in the rest of the country.

By 1997 the state had achieved an irrigation cover of 94 per cent of the cropped area, a cropping intensity of 186 per cent as compared to 133 per cent in the rest of the country, and 98 per cent HYV coverage which is highest among the Indian states. Agriculture in Punjab is a highly capital-intensive and mechanised enterprise, with the state possessing 9,35,000 energised tubewells and 18 per cent of the total number of tractors in the country.11 Every third farming household in the state owns a tractor. The consumption of electricity in the state is the highest in the country, and the consumption of fertiliser in Punjab is 184 kg per hectare compared to an average of 70 kg per hectare in other states. Consequently, the output of foodgrains rose almost four times in three decades, from 73 lakh tonnes in 1970-71 to 253 lakh tonnes in 1999-2000. The area under wheat increased 2.1 times, and production of wheat increased 6.3 times in the period 1966-67 to 2000-01. The area under rice increased in the same period seven times, and rice yields increased two times from 1970-71 to 2000-01.12 Today the state produces over eight tonnes per hectare of wheat and rice.13 In 2004, Punjab contributed 40 per cent of wheat and 60 per cent of rice to the central pool14 and produced a surplus of cotton and sugar cane. It is this that has given Punjab the status of the “bread basket” of the country.

More importantly, Punjab became one of the most affluent states in the country. The state tops the country in terms of per capita milk consumption, and incidentally in liquor consumption as well. Right up to the end of the 1990s, Punjab has been ranked first among all the states in terms of per capita income. In 196667 per capita income in the state was Rs 1,791, in 1976-77 it rose to Rs 2,388, to further rise to Rs 3,302 in 1986-87 and to Rs 3,750 in 1989-90. However, after 1990, when liberalisation was introduced in India, Maharashtra and Gujarat overtook the state. The rate of growth of per capita income in Punjab in the decade of the 1990s was 2.8 per cent per annum compared to

7.6 per cent per annum for Gujarat, and 6.1 per cent per annum in Maharashtra. But even though Punjab’s status in per capita


income went down to the fourth rank in this period, its per capita income remains one of the highest in the country standing at Rs 4,791 in 2000-01.15 At present only two states – Goa and J and K – have poverty levels lower than that of Punjab, only about 6 per cent of the rural and urban population is below the poverty line, and life expectancy in the state is the second highest in the country, that is after Kerala, for both men and women.16

By the late 1980s the green revolution had run its course and Punjab agriculture entered into a structural crisis. In the first phase of the green revolution from 1965-66 to 1975-76, economic growth in Punjab outpaced that of the rest of the country. The economy grew at the rate of 4.8 per cent per year compared to the 3.5 per cent per year growth rate of the national economy. In the second phase, that is, from 1980-81 to 1990-91, Punjab’s economy grew at 5.3 per cent even as the national economy grew at 5.5 per cent per annum. In the neighbouring states of Haryana and Rajasthan, the economy grew at 6.4 per cent and 6.6 per cent per annum, respectively. However, in the third phase that is from 1991-97, the economy of Punjab began to slow down with the rate of growth reduced to 4.1 per cent per annum at a time when the economy of Gujarat was growing at 9.6 per cent per year, that of Maharashtra at 8 per cent per year, and that of the country at 6.89 per annum. Agricultural growth declined from 5.15 per cent per year in the decade of the 1980s, to 2.16 per cent per annum in the period 1991-98. If we further segregate the agricultural sector into agriculture and livestock, agriculture recorded a minimal growth rate of 0.37 per cent per annum in 1991-98. This compares unfavourably to the growth rate of agriculture at 4.87 per cent per annum in the 1980s. Over the years the share of the agricultural sector in the state domestic product has declined from 52.85 per cent in 1966-67 to 41.33 per cent in 1998-99.17

Decline and Impact of Crisis

The crisis in Punjab agriculture resulted from a combination of several factors. Firstly, the green revolution had a profoundly uneven impact on different categories of farms. Unlike many other states in India, Punjab is not known for very large landholdings, and it is dominated by medium and large landholdings which proved especially profitable for the use of new technology. On the other hand, marginal and small landholdings neither permit the optimal use of the technologies of the green revolution, nor do marginal and small farmers possess the resources to buy the package of the green revolution. Resultantly, the first postgreen revolution phase from 1965-66 to 1980 saw a shrinking of marginal and small landholdings and a small increase in the size of large landholdings. With the creation of a market in land, and the generation of employment on land based activities, marginal and small farmers had the incentive to either sell their land or lease it out to medium and large farmers.18

From the 1980s onwards profitability in agriculture began to fall, and limited thereby the growth of employment opportunities. Even as the absolute number of landholdings increased, the average size of landholdings contracted from 4.07 ha in 1980-81 to 3.61 ha in 1990-91. All except small farmers registered a decline in the average size of their landholdings. The number of marginal farmers increased by 50 per cent in the period 198081 to 1990-91, while their operating land base during the same period increased from a total of 1,26,000 ha to 1,64,000 hectares. Small farms also increased because of the subdivision of farm land under laws of inheritance.19 In the third phase from the 1990s onwards, these developments were slightly arrested with data from the agricultural census 1995-96 showing that except for marginal and small farms, the average holding size improved to nearly 3.80 hectares. But this is still considerably below the level of 1980-81.20 In general, the average size of landholdings has over the years contracted.21

Fragmentation of landholdings not only meant that the advantages of new technology could not be fully utilised, the growing scarcity of employment opportunities in the non-farm sector from 1980s onward increased pressures on the land, making small landholdings even more unviable. Consequently, the post-1990s period has been marked by static returns per hectares. It has been estimated that by 1998, 20 per cent of the farming population – 24 per cent of small farmers and 31 per cent of marginal farmers – came under the poverty line, and the family income of 47 per cent of households from agriculture as well as dairy farming was less than the lowest pay scale of an unskilled worker in the state.22 Analysts tell us that large landholdings were also impacted, and that by the 1980s income from a seven hectare farm was lower than the annual income of a government department assistant.23

The second reason for the decline in Punjab agriculture hasto do with rapid increases in the cost of inputs which go into the making of the green revolution package. It has been estimated that the returns per hectare in Punjab are lower than the returns per hectare in Madhya Pradesh.24 Thirdly, Punjab has got bogged down in a two crop economy, and farmers have found it difficult to shift to new patterns of cropping. Fourthly, and more importantly, extensive use of new technology has led to the degradation of the environment. As both wheat and paddy are water-intensive crops, massive groundwater based irrigation has resulted in a depleting water table in Punjab. According to the estimates, the water table in central Punjab is going down at the rate of 0.23 cm per annum. Other parts of the state are witnessing a rise in the water table, resulting in salinity and waterlogging. Widespread deficiency of micronutrient has appeared in the soil, leading to soil degradation.

Fifthly, the agricultural slow down in the state coincided with the introduction of liberalisation in India and with the introduction of the WTO regime. The introduction of liberalisation accentuated the agricultural crisis simply because the policy environment changed. From the days when the central and the state governments actively supported agricultural transformation in the state, from the time when agricultural extension officers visited the fields for long periods to train farmers in the use of new technology, the state now seeks to energise the agricultural economy through the market. The development expenditure of the state government dropped from 71.92 per cent to 64.92 per cent of the total government expenditure in the period 1981-91 largely on account of militancy. But there was no reversal of this trend when normalcy returned in the 1990s. On the contrary, development expenditure witnessed a further drop and in 1998-99 it amounted to only 46.49 per cent of the total government expenditure.25 All these factors have come together to create a crisis of some magnitude in the agrarian sector. As a concept note circulated at the brainstorming session organised by the government of Punjab and Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana in 1998 makes it clear, not only has the economic condition of vast majority of farmers deteriorated, these conditions cannot be improved within existing cropping systems. Nor can the problems be remedied by the use of existing technology because this has already been exploited to 75 per cent of its potential.

In sum, the proliferation of small landholdings, increase in costs of production, stagnating returns, over-exploitation of natural resources, declining public and private sector investments, inadequate marketing and pricing, insufficient processing of vegetables, fruit, and other crops, dwindling research and extension inputs, low investment flows in agro-processing industries, and above, all the withdrawal of the state from the supportive role that it played till the late 1980s, have created a serious agrarian crisis. Declining employment avenues for the rural people is compounded by the fact that other sectors of the economy provide few opportunities for employment. “One of the serious problems Punjab is confronted with at present” states the Punjab Development Report 2004, “is the high volume of unemployment. Disguised unemployment in the agricultural sector and the large volume of low-quality, existing employment, are causes for concern…The growth of employment has not been commensurate with that of the state domestic product, resulting in underutilisation of the labour force”.26 The rate of unemployment is not high compared to the rest of the states in the country, but it increased from 3.08 per cent during 1993-94 to 4.15 per cent by current daily status during 1999-2000, with urban unemployment rates higher than rural unemployment. Ninety-one per cent of the workforce in the state is engaged in the informal sector, 42 per cent of the workforce is illiterate, and 53 per cent of the unskilled or semi-skilled workforce is employed in the rural areas. More serious is the high rate of unemployment among graduates. It is estimated that by the end of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, unemployment figures will actually rise, because the state is unable to generate regular employment in the foreseeable future. According to a Planning Commission estimate, Punjab’s projected employment growth rate is the lowest among major states. The fourth economic survey of Punjab in 1998 stated that there are nearly 15 lakh unemployed persons in Punjab, of which nearly 70 per cent belong to the rural areas.27 According to another estimate, approximately 12.85 lakh agricultural workers are surplus.28 With employment opportunities in the agrarian sector declining, and few opportunities available in non-land activities, the employment scenario in the state has acquired serious proportions.

It was only because the Indian state pursued with great vigour a single-point programme, the achievement of self-sufficiency in foodgrains, that the green revolution technology could take off in Punjab. An initiative of a similar scale, urgency, and intensity is required to reverse the downward movement of Punjab agriculture. Existing technology needs to be corrected and the two crop pattern has to be diversified. However, the policy of liberalisation has meant disengagement rather than the engagement of the state from such affairs, the eventual phasing out of subsidies and the elimination of price control on foodgrains.29 Unfortunately, the onset of liberalisation occurred in the precise phase when politically Punjab was most ill prepared to go that way. It also so happened that liberalisation compounded the economic problems of Punjab at a time when the political elite was least inclined to come to grips with these problems.

Electoral Politics Once Again

Consider for instance, the battles that were fought among the parties in the electoral arena after the 1992 state elections, these revolved around many things but not about the agrarian crisis. In the post-1992 election scenario, the Akalis were trying to put their own house in order, because the leaders realised that the party had to regain the political ground which had been appropriated by the militants in the 1980s, in order to ensure a poll victory. Within a year that is by 1993, the Akalis decided to participate in the panchayat elections which saw an electoral turn out of 80 per cent. The Akalis claimed that the impressive increase in electoral participation was because their party had decided to participate in the elections, and the Congress government claimed that the electoral turnout represented a vote of confidence in the government.30 In these competing claims for legitimacy, serious economic problems of the state were once again neglected.

By the time of the 1997 state elections, various Akali factions decided to come together to fight the elections.31 The 1997 assembly elections were held in conditions far removed from the hype, the contestation, the fear, and the voter apathy that marked the 1992 elections. This should have motivated the parties to turn their attention from the “big picture” of peace to the everyday problems of the citizens. But the election strategies of the two parties, caught up as they were in their manoeuvrings for power, were governed by other factors. One, the Congress was hampered not only by the absence of former chief minister Beant Singh who had presided over the agenda of restoring normalcy, the party found itself completely out of sync in a situation in which its most important achievement – that of containing militancy – was not an election issue. Second, the electoral scene was transformed mainly because militant activities had subsided in Punjab, but also because Akali politics came to be cast in a new mould. For by the time of the 1997 assembly elections, the AD under the leadership of Prakash Singh Badal,32 had not only firmly put the demand for state autonomy33 into the closet, it had entered into a regional alliance of the rightist BJP.

This was not the first time this had happened. The AD which has never commanded more than 30 per cent of the votes in the state has been compelled to enter a coalition with the most unlikely allies in order to come to power in the state in 1967, 1969 and 1977 – the Jan Sangh which is the precursor of the BJP, the CPI which is decidedly against the merger of religion and politics, and the Janata Party. In the process, the compulsions of electoral politics had forced the party to move to a more secular political idiom, and away from the slogan of the “panth in danger” which had characterised the struggle for a Punjabi Suba. But by the decade of the 1980s, the AD was obliged to launch a struggle against the Hindu domination of India, and resort to the “panth in danger” slogan mainly to offset militant rhetoric. In the meanwhile, the BJP had launched a struggle for the Hindu domination of India. Therefore, in the 1980s each party was firmly wedded to different notions of what a nation is and what it should be. But in 1997 both the parties came together to fight elections.

The themes that dominated the political platform of the AD-BJP alliance were at complete dissonance with the overriding need of the day; the need to take measured and firm steps to counter the agrarian crisis. The first theme revolved around the corruption of the previous Congress regime.34 The AD-BJP combine promised to set up a Lokpal, which would bring the chief minister under its purview, and which would deliver the state from corruption. “Freedom from corruption” became a slogan of the alliance, and an issue on which it sought to mobilise the people of the state. In the process, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was firmly put onto the shelf because the BJP has consistently refused to have any truck with separatist agendas. The second issue on which the two parties found a common ground was what they called their “religiosity”. Both parties stated that Punjab is a land of sants and gurus, and that therefore only religious parties like the AD and BJP had the right to govern such a land. Prakash Singh Badal, the projected chief ministerial candidate of the alliance, promised to the people of Punjab both “‘Ramrajya’ and governance on the line of the Sikh king Ranjit Singh” rolled into one.35 Consequently in its election manifesto, the AD declared that (a) the party would “work for the Panth, Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat” and (b) would “provide a corruption free government”. It is of some interest to note that the state assembly elections provided a testing ground in the practice of coalition politics for the BJP. For by that time it was trying to reconcile its hard Hindutva line with the exigencies of coalition politics, simply because it had failed to win any ally in the aftermath of 1996 general election.

It is not that the AD manifesto had nothing to offer to farmers

– it made references to development, roads, bridges, octroi, free power and water, benefits for traders, and fiscal governance.36 The problem is that it addressed only the dominant concerns of the big farming lobby – therefore promises of free water and electricity for agriculture. Though the promise helped to bring down the costs of inputs, it could not address the structural causes of the crisis. In other words, the manifesto of the AD did not conceive or did not want to conceive of a larger plan or a longterm strategy for the regeneration of agriculture. It provided sops more than anything else; after all promises of free water and electricity have notoriously been employed as vote catching devices. The Congress on the other hand, continued to harp on the issue of peace and promised to thwart the “separatist tendencies of the Akalis as enshrined in Anandpur Saheb Resolution”.

It is clear from the unprecedented mandate that went in favour of the Akalis that by 1997 Punjab had outgrown the peace agenda. The people of the state were now searching for new initiatives that could ward off the impending agrarian disaster, for a new policy initiative that would make agriculture profitable once again for farmers; for a new vision which would arrest the declining productivity of soil and depleting water tables; for a new idea which would halt environmental degradation; and for a new policy framework which would create new avenues of employment. Their search was wasted. What they got were oratorical add-ons which promised free power and water. These incidentally are promises which have brought considerable harm to state governments all over India, landing them into the lap of financial deficit. But when the new AD government came into power, it had neither a policy initiative nor a comprehensive plan at hand to deal with serious problems of livelihood. Politics was more of the same.

Ironically by the time the 2002 elections to the state assembly came around, the roles of the Congress and the AD were completely reversed. Firstly despite the fact that it was the AD which had raised crucial issues in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, with which it had confronted the central government in the late 1970s and the 1980s, now it was the Congress that spoke of interstate disputes like the Sutlej Yamuna link and handing over of Chandigarh and Punjabi-speaking areas to Punjab. It is worthwhile to recollect that the AD had, in the past, attacked the Congress for not responding to these very demands. But in 2002 Congress included these very issues into its manifesto mainly because the AD was in power in the centre as a part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance. The Congress, in other words, intended to embarrass the AD through holding aloft the very platform that had led to confrontation between the two parties in the past. Secondly, the issue of corruption on which the AD-BJP government had ridden to power in 1997, came back to haunt the alliance within a short period of time. But this time it was the turn of the Congress to charge the ruling alliance with rampant corruption and misrule in the state. Now Congress promised that a judicial commission headed by a sitting judge of the high court would be set up to inquire into acquisition of wealth and property by the Akali chief minister Badal, his family members and other ministers of his government. In keeping with the agenda of governance that had become the core theme of most party manifestos in the country by 2000, the Congress manifesto further maintained that if the party came back to power, the chief minister and all ministers would declare their assets immediately after taking office, and maintain a model code of conduct and transparency.

The Congress manifesto made some reference to the worsening economic situation in its slogan of “freedom from bankruptcy”.37 But then the Congress, ever faithful to its time honoured election strategy, promises everything to every section of society. Therefore when he released the party manifesto, the state party chief, Amarinder Singh, offered concessions worth Rs 1,200 crore to various sections of society – traders, farmers, weaker sections and employees. In particular the manifesto promised to continue with the policy of free electricity and water for agriculture, and assured relief to those farmers who run their tubewells by diesel. On macroeconomic issues, the manifesto stated that the Congress would not allow the dismantling of the minimum support price system, that it would provide crop insurance cover, and that it would abolish the arrest warrant system to recover cooperative loans. The manifesto also spoke of increasing irrigation capacity and of benefits for unemployed youth, pensioners and ex-servicemen.38 Apparently drafted by the economists of the Agricultural University of Patiala, the AD manifesto was not far behind when it came to making promises to the farmers in particular and the population in general. This strategy however bore little result because the party had done nothing to resuscitate the farm economy of the state during last five years of its rule, apart from paying lip-service to the needs of the farmers and through offers of sympathy and tea. The AD manifesto at a more general level sought to emphasise the past wrongs of the Congress Party and harped on the step motherly treatment meted out to the state by the Congress governments at the centre over time.39

By the turn of the 21st century, the crisis in agriculture and the state economy had accentuated so much that party manifestos could ill afford to ignore this discomforting fact. However, whatever were the pledges and promises made by the major parties, they were clearly inadequate because no road map for reviving the Punjab economy was offered; all that was offered were sops. As a Tribune editorial tellingly commented, “with so much of shining stuff on offer, who has the time to think about issues like the decline in agriculture, lack of industrial growth and deficiencies in primary sectors? Bread is not essential when butter is being doled out”.40 Such is the nature of electoral and democratic politics in the state of Punjab.

Peasant Movement

How is it that political parties can ignore the most burning of issues and yet mobilise votes? Do sections of the population who are adversely affected by economic decline not have the capacity to mobilise and press their demands? More importantly, given the centrality of agriculture to the state, and given the centrality of Punjab agriculture to food self-sufficiency in the country, why has the farmers’ movement not been able to influence politics in the recent past? These are troubling questions, answers to which can only be found in the history of the peasant movement in the state.

In Punjab the peasant movement arose as part of the nationalist struggle in the canal colony agitation of 1907 under leaders like Sardar Ajit Singh. Later, it was the landlords who activated peasants under the aegis of the Unionist Party. The Kisan Sabha movement of the Communist Party and Zamindara League of Chaudhary Chhotu Ram also mobilised the peasantry during this period. However, it was the green revolution in the 1960s that instituted the material conditions for the growth of a sustained farmers’ movement. Firstly, farming became an enterprise that required professional solidarity because the farmers were now dependent on the market. Secondly, the green revolution brought about far-reaching changes in production relations, since agriculture required hired rather than family labour. The growth of agricultural labour set the scene for a renewed emphasis on conditions of work.41 Thirdly, the beneficiaries of the green revolution had a common interest in the prices fixed for inputs and outputs.

It was against this background that the Punjab Khetibari Zamindara Union (PKZU) – the predecessor of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) – was established in 1972. The result of the efforts of eight prominent leaders, the PKZU took up the troublesome issue of stagnant procurement prices for wheat. Between 1972 and 1984 the union organised eight rounds of mobilisation with the famous Raj Bhawan gherao of 1984 being the final one. Subsequently, the PKZU converted itself into the Punjab unit of the BKU in 1980. Predominantly a movement of the rich peasantry, the PKZU was more interested in issues such as higher procurement prices of wheat and paddy and subsidised prices of inputs such as electricity, diesel and fertilisers than issues related to marginal or small farmers or to the depleting environment. These issues were further marginalised because as a result of the rise of the BKU, Kisan Sabhas organised by the Communist parties were considerably sidelined.42 The activities of the PKZU, however, came to a halt in 1984 with Operation Blue Star making political agitation impossible in the state.

Militancy affected the activities of the farmers’ movement considerably because it diverted attention away from livelihood into other channels such as the demand for Khalistan. Moreover, during the same period, differences began to crop up between the leaders on various issues. In 1989, the first split in the movement took place because Ajmer Singh Lakhowal and Manjit Singh Kadian separated and formed another organisation. The residual group was left with Bhupinder Singh Mann and Balbir Singh Rajewal as its leaders. The division was apparently triggered off by the nomination of Bhupinder Singh Mann to the Rajya Sabha by the V P Singh government then in power at the centre. The division gained ideological content later, because various farmers’ groups were faced with the need to take a considered stand on the issue of the liberalisation of Indian agriculture. The members of the Mann-Rajewal group favoured liberalisation policies because free trade would benefit farmers. They thus joined the principal defender of this ideological line – Sharad Joshi of the Shetkari Mazdoor Sangathan, but the Lakhowal-Kadiyan group was much more sceptical about the consequences of such a policy. It, therefore, aligned with Mahendra Singh Tikait of UP and Nanjundaswami of Karnataka to fight liberalisation. The Rajewal and Kadiyan group split further in 1994, when the left elements in the organisation decided to go ahead and form BKU (Ekta). Since 2003, there have been further divisions in BKU (Ekta) and as things stand now, there are several peasant organisations in Punjab: three factions of BKU, three factions of Kisan Sabhas controlled by CPI, CPI(M), and a faction of the CPI(M) respectively, and an independent left-oriented peasant organisation. Even though many scholars are optimistic about the resurgence of the peasant movement given the unprecedented stress that Punjab peasantry is facing today, the fragmentation of the movement since the 1990s provides cause for some pessimism.

In effect, the militancy between 1980 and 1992 – the lost years of Punjab politics – has had a major and a lingering impact on farmers’ mobilisation in the state. Therefore, when the challenging decade of the 1990s came calling, the farmers’ movement in Punjab was organisationally fragmented, ideologically blunted, and stuck with a dwindling support base. Secondly, the internal contradictions of the peasantry began to emerge most forcefully during precisely this period. This contradiction articulated itself most sharply on the issue of liberalisation and the WTO regime. Even as big farmers in Punjab as in much of the country came to believe that free market policies would mean more profit for them because they had the capacity to compete internationally, smaller farmers felt that new policies were going to marginalise them even further. Thirdly, though the peasant movement in Punjab has always maintained a strategic distance from political parties ever since its formation, dabbling in politics divided the movement. The nomination of Bhupinder Singh Mann to the Rajya Sabha and his close links with the central government triggered the first split in the organisation. The second split that saw the emergence of BKU (Ekta) was an outcome of Lakhowal’s close involvement with Akali politics, an involvement that many in the organisation challenged as against the spirit of the movement. Subsequently, even as the Ekta group moved closer to the Kisan Sabhas organised under the aegis of Communist parties particularly on the anti-WTO and liberalisation plank, the Lokhewal group held a Jat panchayat at Ludhiana in March 1995 and announced that the organisation would transform itself into a political party with the purpose of capturing political power at the state level.

Finally, even as the BKU brand of peasant mobilisation brought various sections of farmers under the leadership of large farmers, the basic thrust of the entire movement, subsidisation of input prices and maximisation of output prices was premised on the assumption that green revolution technologies were going to work for all the time to come. However, once it became increasingly clear by the 1990s that this was not the case, and that the agrarian revolution of the 1960s was petering out, the agenda and the strategy of the movement itself required a fresh look. Considering that the agrarian crisis has been caused by the declining productivity, soil degradation, water depletion, and dwindling difference between input and output prices, any enduring solution requires much more than economic concessions. For instance, the issue of soil and water conservation demands a much more holistic approach than the one adopted by the movement so far. There are instances of some factions of the movement taking the initiative and helping farmers diversify into agro-industrial and other sectors. However, neither of these factions has launched any collective programme for environmental conservation.

In sum, the farmers’ movement has neither managed to address the structural crisis in Punjab agriculture, nor managed to press the government to do so. For this necessitates clarity of approach, consensus on the causes of the problem, and an equal consensus on the solution. But the farmers’ movement in Punjab had been fragmented, with each division being wracked by internal contradictions, disagreements between the leadership and rampant personalisation of issues. In the process even as the interests of the big farming lobby have been represented to some extent, the needs of the small and marginal farmers who have been hardest hit by the crisis in agriculture have been sidelined. The farmers’ movement has not been able to emerge as a formidable political force in the state. Consequently, the state government continues to wend its own way, a way that is completely removed from the needs of the people of the state. That is, the weaknesses of peasant mobilisation in the state have allowed political parties to ignore farmers’ issues.


If we were to return to the question of what does politics in post-conflict societies look like? The answer may well be: catchall and for that very reason, indeterminate. The need of the AD and of the Congress to recapture the legitimacy that the parties had lost, motivated both parties to hold aloft agendas that had little to do with the pressing needs of the peasantry. The 1992 election conducted in the shadow of lingering violence threw up two main issues – return to peace and the validity of the election itself. The second election in 1997 was organised around two themes – corruption and the need for a religious Punjab to be governed by religious parties. The 2002 election saw a reversal of agendas and of stands, with now the Congress accusing the AD of not securing any demand that was vital to the future of the state. In all this, the structural roots of the impending agrarian crisis have been simply ignored or put aside as secondary to the consideration to come into power. Once again Punjab is in the throes of a crisis. And just like politics was unable to negotiate the grievances that led to militancy in the first place, it is unable to address the problems that have led to a structural crisis in agriculture. Though the electoral process in the aftermath of the conflict provided opportunities for both parties to reconstitute their agendas and reflect deeply on the nature of political discontent, electoral practices remain confined to the making and unmaking of governments.




[This essay is based on the findings of a project Conflict and InstitutionalChange in India. The project forms part of the ‘Crisis States Programme’ which is located in DESTIN, the London School of Economics and Political Science. We are grateful to the programme director James Putzel for his support, to John Harriss for his informed and detailed comments on an earlier version of this essay, and to other participants of the programme for setting the tone of this research. The survey was conducted by the research scholarsof the developing countries research centre of the University of Delhi.]

1 Amritsar was categorised by the government of India as the highest conflict area in the state. We mapped out high conflict areas and low conflict areas in the state in the period 1980-94 on the basis of three indicators in the Crime Report Statistics published by the governmentof India – murders, kidnappings and riots. The three criteria were chosen for one main reason: all cases of “terrorism” during the conflict were filed under three categories of murders, kidnappings and riots. There is no separate category for “terrorist” acts in the records. This is corroborated by our finding that the incidence of murders, kidnappings and riots went up phenomenally during the phase of the conflict. The high conflict areaswere Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Ludhiana, Jullunder, Ferozepur and Sangrur in 1992. Low conflict areas were Sangrur except 1992, Kapurthala, Roper, Hoshiarpur, Mansa and Patiala.

2 Neera Chandhoke, ‘Revisiting the Crisis of Representation Thesis: The Indian Context’, Democratisation, Vol 12, No 3, June, pp 308-30, 2005.

3 In September 1985, elections were held to the legislative assembly. TheAD and the Longowal faction in the AD scored a great success and secured 73 seats in the assembly. A government under chief minister Surjt Singh Barnala ruled the state from September 1985 to May 1987. In 1986, 27 AD MLAs led by Parkash Singh Badal defected and sought recognition as a separate group, leaving Barnala dependent on the support of the Congress. In the meanwhile, militant activities continued to mount, andin April 1986 militant organisations declared an independent state of Khalistan from the precincts of the Golden Temple. In 1987 the central government imposed president’s rule on the state. Elections were held to the parliament in November 1989 but elections to the state legislative assembly were held seven years after the 1985 elections.

4 Amarinder Singh later joined the Congress. 5 Frontline, February 28, 1992a. 6 Yogendra Yadav, ‘Who Won in Punjab: Of the Real Contest’, Frontline,

April 10, 1992.

7 Senior CPI leader Satpal Dang and BSP leader Ramlal Jassi stated in separate interviews to the press that any election in Punjab without Akali participation was not complete. See Frontline issues of February 28 and March 27, 1992.

8 Frontline, March 12, 1993. The industrial policy of the governmentenvisaged the annual investment of Rs 500 crore, but this did not take into account the agrarian sector.

9 Militancy adversely affected real estate and the service sector to some extent.

10 These statistics have been generated by our project.

11 Punjab Development Report 2004, Delhi, Planning Commission, government of India, Chapter 4, henceforth PDR.

12 PDR, pp 12-25.

13 Ibid, p v.

14 Ibid, p 1.

15 Ibid, p 582.

16 Yet the state is characterised by severe regional imbalances both in terms of economic growth and in terms of human development indicators. InMansa district of south Punjab, the literacy level is only slightly higher than that of Bihar, and infant mortality in the district is comparable to that in Rajasthan. Human development indicators are worrying in other fields as well. A food surplus state like Punjab has large numbers of anaemic children, a shocking rate of female foeticide resulting in a gender ratio which is far lower than that of the rest of country – 793 femalesper 1,000 males, and high rates of unemployment among educated youth. The scheduled castes are worse off. Female literacy is only 31 per cent among the SCs, and though the SCs comprise 28 per cent of the population in the state, they only hold one-tenth of the land.

17 Lakhwinder Singh and Sukhpal Singh, ‘Deceleration of Economic Growth in Punjab: Evidence, Explanation and a Way Out’, Economic and Political Weekly, February 9, 2002, pp 579-88.

18 PDR, p 112.

19 Ibid, p 112.

20 Ibid p 113.

21 Ibid, p 111.

22 See Ramesh Chand, ‘Emerging Crisis in Punjab Agriculture: Severityand Options for Future’, Economic and Political Weekly, Special Issue on Agriculture, March 27, 1999, pp A7-A10.

23 Lakhwinder Singh and Sukhpal Singh, op cit.

24 Ibid, p 584.

25 Source, Statistical Abstract of Punjab, economic advisor to government of Punjab (various years).

26 PDR, p 510.

27 Ibid, pp 510-42.

28 Ghuman, ‘Implications of WTO Regime: Challenges before Punjab Agriculture’, The Tribune, Chandigarh, June 19, 2000.

29 V M Rao, ‘Farmers in Market Economy: Would Farmers Gain through Liberalisation?’ in K S Dhindsa and Anju Sharma op cit, 2001.

30 Frontline, February 26, 1993.

31 At the insistence of the Shrimoni Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, various factions of the AD came together in 1993, but the alliance did not last for long and various factions took part in subsequent elections on their own. Also the Akali Dal was transformed into the Shrimoni Akali Dal or the SAD, however the changed name was adopted by variousfactions of the AD. Therefore, we use AD interchangeably with SAD.

32 Other Akali factions led by various extremist leaders also took part in the electoral fray – SAD (A) headed by Simaranjit Singh Mann, Panthic Akali Dal led by Bhai Jasbir Singh Rode, SAD (Wadala) led by Kuldip Singh Wadala and SAD (Sukhjinder) led by Sukhjinder Singh. However, it was the section led by Badal that was the strongest and with the largestsupport base. The other groups entered into an alliance with the BSP, but were wiped out in the elections.

33 The rhetoric of separatism in Punjab as in Kashmir has vacillated between demands for a separate state and demands for state autonomy.

34 Many leaders of the alliance said that the Congress has ceased to be a political party and has become a money harvesting machine instead. SeeFrontline, March 7, 1997.

35 Frontline, February 7, 1997.

36 See Ashutosh Kumar, ‘Electoral Politics in Punjab’, Economic and Political Weekly, April 3-9/10, 2004, special issue on ‘State Parties, National Ambitions’, pp 1515-20.

37 The Tribune, Chandigarh, January 28, 2002.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid, February 2, 2002.

40 Ibid, January 28, 2002.

41 Sucha Singh Gill, ‘Agrarian Change and Farmers’ Movement in Punjab:A Study of BKU’ in Harish K Puri and Paramjit Singh Judge (eds), Social and Political Movements, New Delhi, Rawat Publications, 2000.

42 Sucha Singh Gill, ‘Farmers’ Movement: Continuity and Change’, Economic and Political Weekly, July 3, 2004, pp 2964-66.

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