Captain attacks Modi govt on farmers. Is he emerging as a key campaigner for Congress?
One thing is for certain, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh will occupy a central place in the Congress' strategy for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The reason is simple as Punjab is the only state that turned the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) dream of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” sour.
Despite the financial crunch and other shortcomings, Amarinder has been trying to deftly raise issues like farm distress that will form the core of the political narrative ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. What he has been doing is to put the ball in the BJP-led central government's court on these issues. The aim is to catch the BJP on the wrong foot. All eyes will now be on how the Narendra Modi led government will address these concerns that not only impact the large farmer population not only in Punjab but across India.
Amarinder had set the ball rolling by announcing a partial farm loan waiver in Punjab last year. Despite all the criticism regarding its implementation, he still holds the high moral ground of having initiated the process, although partially. It was after his initiative that various BJP governments also announced the waivers. Now as the polls get nearer, it is obvious that the noise around farm issues is going to get shriller.
Observers say that the Congress will be playing up this waiver given by Amarinder along with the Rs 70,000 crore waiver that the UPA 1 government had given in 2008 as the campaign heats up for states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that go to polls later this year and subsequently for the Lok Sabha polls.
Amarinder played yet another deft move on Sunday when he asked Modi to constitute a committee which would have members from the union government along with some chief ministers to formulate a blueprint of a national debt waiver scheme for farmers in consultation with the states.
Addressing a meeting of the NITI Aayog, he underlined the importance of accepting the MS Swaminathan panel report in totality and pointed that the governing council should consider the issue of agricultural loan waiver at the national level on priority.
Underlining Punjab’s important role in the defence and food security of the nation, Amarinder made a strong case for debt relief for the farmers, pointing out that his government had already announced a scheme for institutional crop loan waiver in the state to all the marginal and small farmers having outstanding crop loans up to Rs.2 lakh, thus providing relief to 10.25 lakh farmers.
It was on last Wednesday that Amarinder announced the disbursement of Rs. 209 crore to remaining 38,000 marginal farmers, who are members of cooperative societies, within the next ten days to complete the first phase of his government’s debt relief scheme.
He said that in the second phase, small farmers linked with cooperative societies would be taken up for disbursement of relief. Commercial banks have already started uploading the data of their loanee farmers on the specially designed portal for this purpose. Subsequently, marginal farmers belonging to the cooperative societies which have not yet received the full eligible amount up to Rs. 2 lakh and are otherwise eligible to receive relief amount due to them for the loans secured from the commercial banks, would also be covered. Amarinder said the promise made to the farmers before the assembly elections of 2017 would be fulfilled at all costs.
At the NITI Aayog meeting on Sunday Amarinder sought procurement of alternate crops such as maize, oil seeds and pulses by central agencies, besides urging the central government to incentivize farmers through a conditional cash transfer by way of non-burning bonus of Rs. 100 per quintal on paddy, in order to check the problem of burning of paddy straw. He said that while farm machinery is being subsidised for farmer groups and cooperative societies by his government and stubble burning had come down down in 2017 from 2016, the problem still remains serious.
During the 10-day farmers' strike early this month also Amarinder had played up the issue of loan waiver while attacking the union agriculture and farmers' welfare minister Radhamohan Singh for reportedly calling the farmers agitation a publicity stunt. He had lashed out at the central government for its complete apathy to the problems of the distressed farmers, many of whom were committing suicide, around the country.
Claiming to be in complete sympathy with the protesting farmers, Amarinder had asked what else could the farmers be expected to do when their and their families’ survival is at stake. He said the farmers are suffering as a result of the central government’s failure to waive off their debts, which many state governments, including Punjab, have been repeatedly seeking, and also to give them the due price for their produce.
He had underlined that if a bankrupt state like Punjab could do its bit for loan waiver, why could the central government not come up with a waiver scheme? He said the Centre lacked the will and the intent to come to the rescue of the beleaguered farmers.
In his address at the NITI Aayog meet, Amarinder called for special one-time infrastructure development package for border areas for Punjab that has an active International Border with thickly populated border districts. Lamenting that the criteria for allocation of funds under the Border Areas Development Programme remained unfavourable to Punjab, he sought acquisition of lands that lie beyond the border fence by the central government, along with incentives for industry in the border area. He also aired a demand for tax incentives and promotional schemes for the border belt on the lines of hilly and north-eastern regions. Another demand put forward by him is special development and maintenance of border roads in Punjab under the national highway programme. Amarinder has also asked the Centre to include Punjab rivers for capital assistance on the lines of the Ganga Action Plan.
If the Centre fails to address these demands, the Congress will be upping the ante on them during the campaign as it would help put BJP ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) on the mat in Punjab.
Observers say that as the politics heats up, Amarinder is expected to directly take on the Centre on different issues which his party will amplify in other states during the campaign. He did this in the run-up to the Punjab polls on issues like demonetisation and calling the bluff on tension-building on the International Border after the 'surgical strike' carried out by Indian Army in Kashmir. This time the stakes are higher for the Congress and he will be expected to play a key role in the strategy. It remains to be seen how he delivers.