All political parties in Karnataka continue to represent the interests of the feudal class, including those of the large farmers who constitute a minuscule of the entire farming community
As the curtains come down on campaigning for the Karnataka Assembly polls, scheduled for May 10, 2023, one is left with the eerie feeling of a stage-managed unreal show coming to an ambivalent end.
Despite the claims made by political parties, this election once again proves how stable our democratic processes are; the moot question is, what was it all about?
The four draconian agrarian laws passed by the Karnataka government effectively put an end to the aspirations of the Kagodu tenant farmers’ movement of the 1950s, which declared the tiller as the owner of the land.
The movement started in a nondescript little village as a protest by the tenant farmers belonging to a backward ‘deeva’ community, drew the support of the socialists led by Ram Manohar Lohia and laid the foundation of the farmers’ struggle.
The amendment to the land reform laws made the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government undid the ideological bulwark by permitting non-farmers to buy agricultural lands. The capping on the size of land that could be sold was also removed.
The cynical calculation was that in the time of agrarian distress, farmers would make a distress sale of their land to the real estate mafia. In recent years, agriculture has become unviable due to unpredictable prices of agricultural products and devastation by untimely rains and floods.
With one stroke, all previous irregular land deals were regularised. And these amendments would not benefit the small farmers who had been tilling tiny land holdings for decades. Their lands would remain as bagairhukum (illegally encroached).
Despite the manoeuvring of traders’ cartels, the agricultural products marketing committees (APMC) ensured reliable prices. But these committees were demolished by allowing traders to bypass the APMCs and buy directly.
Behind these laws and amendments were the BJP ideology of the free market and slavish support for the traders, real estate mafias and industrialists. Altogether, it was a comprehensive legal and administrative strategy to destroy the farming community. It was a strategy to create a permanent crisis and delink the farmers from their land.
These should have been the issues on which the elections would be fought. Except for the usual sops to farmers in terms of loans, loan waivers and vague premises to withdraw the draconian laws, there was hardly any indication of serious commitment by the political parties.
The ruling BJP had declared that the elections would be fought on the issues relating to Tipu, Savarkar, the Uniform civil code and dereservation for minority communities. The frenzy of the masses in the road shows and talk shows were frightening. How can people turn their eyes away from the impending doom?
Agriculture is not a business whose crisis may create a short-lived ripple. It has already shown its links to irrevocable consequences, leading to utter poverty and suffering in Karnataka.
Surveys have warned of the continuing decrease in arable land and cultivation in the state. This could only mean uncontrolled urban migration and the horrors of unorganised labour exposed by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Rural poverty and landless employment would increase malnutrition and infant mortality by geometric proportions. Without a sustained health care system and public food distribution system, real hunger is certain to reach an inhuman proportion. I am not exaggerating the issues to create the image of a dystopian future. It is only a question of putting together facts to understand what they indicate.
In Karnataka, politics has caused the effective ‘invisiblisation’ of farmers. They do not exist. They are not the primary concern for anybody in the hollow show of elections.
The major concern is the inability of the farmers’ associations in the state to act as a powerful pressure group that can force political parties to reshape their agendas. The great farmers’ movement of the 1980s and the establishment of the Karnataka Rajya Raita Sangha (KRRS) impacted the state policies.
The farmers’ ideologue MD Nanjundaswamy formulated a powerful framework that brought together the land question, minimum support prices, control over a capitalist-friendly bureaucracy and a rational set of strategies to make agriculture viable and self-sustaining.
The history of people’s movements in Karnataka has shown how they failed in securing effective political power but through massive resistance pressured governments to safeguard the welfare of farmers.
Just as the Kagodu tenant farmers’ movement had later led to the land reform acts of the Devaraj Urs regime, the KPRS had made effective interventions through ‘direct action’, picketing and unbending resistance to pressurise governments to take farmer-friendly steps.
In his later years, Nanjundaswamy developed a powerful critique of the Liberalization, Privatization, and Globalization (LPG) reforms, which ushered in a neo-colonial, capital-driven economy.
The farmers of Karnataka laid siege to the KGC outlets, burnt down field trials of genetically modified seeds and opposed multinationals.
With factionalism and a loss of radical spirit, the farmers’ movement in Karnataka weakened. Political parties, therefore, are under no pressure to make the agricultural crisis the main plank of the elections. Caste loyalties and the lure of promised sops and election bribes are likely to influence the voter farmer who is not exactly a farmer-voter.
All political parties in Karnataka continue to represent the interests of the feudal class, including those of the large farmers who constitute a minuscule per cent of the entire farming community.
The recently published information about the election contestants by the Association for Democratic Reforms reiterates the fact that most of them are millionaires and many have criminal cases against them.
As a witty writer commented a few years ago in Karnataka, earlier, the elected legislators represented the liquor and real estate mafias by proxy. Now the mafias are in the assembly as legislators. The old Marxist question is very relevant in this context. What class interests do electoral politics represent today? Certainly not of the farmers or the working class.
Following the instruction of Amith Shah, Union minister of home affairs, the Karnataka government also passed the new, amended labour acts, which permit industry owners to exploit labourers to work twelve hours a day (voluntarily, of course!) and escape from vigilance by government agencies. They are also exempted from implementing labour welfare measures.
The signs of the times are clear. State governments are encouraged to abdicate social welfare responsibilities to finally abandon even the pro-farmer rhetoric and create highways for multinationals to rob farmers of their only asset — the land they till. Development is the new political mantra. It is no one’s concern that farmers and workers are not included in it.
Elections here are not about farmers; they are for inciting religious hatred, public violence and the worship of the wealthy. Meanwhile, journalists in Karnataka have already drafted poetic peans for yet another scene in the biggest democracy in the world.
Rajendra Chenni is former professor at Kuvempu University, Shivamogga
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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