Millennium Post

Land reforms, a poll plank?

The attempt to get a clearer, futuristic view of what’s going to happen in 2014, post the general elections, has already begun in right earnest. And no potential prognosticator in Delhi, the hub of all the preparatory political activity, is ready to allocate more than 200 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress Party and the BJP together. So, effectively, that leaves 342 seats up for grabs that are for non-Congress, non-BJP parties. In effect, how the dice rolls on those substantial numbers of seats will indicate who will rule New Delhi, effectively India, for the next few years. Mamata Bannerjee had made the first move to forge a common front on an issue of high tensility called federalism. Her Federal Front call got a rise out of Nitish Kumar of Bihar and Navin Pattanaik of Orissa a bit.

But her characteristic mercurial behaviour in political power and out of it, did not add enough credible heft for an alliance between the three state-level parties. On the contrary, right at the beginning of the talk about the Front, one could sense a kind of jockeying for the centralist position. However, one cannot yet write off the idea as yet and consign it to the dustbin.

In fact, no political idea about pre-poll combinations can be written off at the moment as the tectonic shifts that would decide where the fortune lies of the political parties of the country. Last Monday, (1 July) the four premier left parties of the country, who have remained banded together since 1977 – thus considered monolithic in a sense – made their move for 2014. At a political convention called by them that day, they posited to potential allies and the country a political ‘platform’ of ideas on which they would like to forge a common front, presumably pre-poll or post-poll, if the people generally buy into their ideas in their pockets of strength and thus give them a mandate to move forward to the centre-stage.

Let us take a close look at some of the ideas they have developed to constitute this ‘platform.’ They call it an ‘alternative’ poll plank that is clearly differentiated from the neo-liberal policies of both the Congress and the BJP. First item on that agenda is land reforms, which will include distribution of surplus land to the landless; homestead land for the landless households; end to forcible land acquisition plus remunerative prices for farmers and access to cheap credit based on the MS Swaminathan Commission report.

If one examines this aspect of the left agenda from the viewpoint of their record of implementation land reforms in the states they have ruled, one can say, barring Kerala, land reforms, in the purest sense of the word, and land distribution have mostly remained in the back burner in West Bengal, for example. Land reforms, which means essentially having a limit on individual land holding and occupying the excess land first by the state government, then distributed to the landless, remained largely unfulfilled by the Left Front government led by the late Jyoti Basu that came to power in 1977. While there was some enthusiasm for genuine land reforms in the state government of the time till 1980, it was soon lost in the exercise of governance.

What the Left Front government in West Bengal did and earned hosannas for was tenurial reforms (Operation Barga) for share-croppers and agricultural labour. This exercise in empowerment thus changing the ruling dynamic of rural societies, held them in such good stead politically that they ruled rural Bengal for the next three decades based on the goodwill generated by those actions.
One may recall, even Jawaharlal Nehru-led Congress Party that came to power in 1950 wanted to enact and implement land reform measures but were quickly thwarted by the regional satraps of the party, who boxed Nehru in.

Second, the left parties led by the CPI (M) want building of infrastructure to be done by the public sector, and provide a requisite impetus to set-up manufacturing industries, which create real jobs for the people. They also want to nationalise mining and oil resources. The privatisation of the infrastructure sector was touted both by the Congress and the BJP ostensibly, for the lack of public funds to undertake the tasks. The left parties say that they will plug loopholes in the tax code; regulate speculative financial flows, and stop the opening of the financial sector and stop foreign direct investment in the retail trade.

Thirdly, the CPI(M) and its fellow travellers want an universal public distribution system with 35 kgs of foodgrains for Rs 2 a kg per month for all families. While presenting this aspect of the agenda, CPI(M)’s Parliamentary party leader, Sitaram Yechury gave a math. He said the food bill of this exercise would cost the exchequer Rs 93,000 crores every year. The total cost of the Coal Scam is
Rs 1,86,00,000 crores. So, that would mean the money involved in the scam that have enriched Congress Party leaders and their crony capitalists could pay for the food security bill for two years.
Thus having this ‘alternative’ agenda and then looking for who embraces promises to be a more a discursive process than hustling for the numbers from the 352-seat kitty post-poll.

The author is a senior journalist

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