Punjab needs to become relevant. Every Punjabi wishes for that. "But are we not relevant already," one may ask. The simple answer is, we were. At one time, we were the food grain providers extra ordinary. And on top of that, we are a border state. As long as South Asia remained an unstable zone, we were very relevant.
Now, with agriculture in stagnation and many other states catching up and becoming food grain providers to the national grainary, Punjab is losing its prime relevance.
We are well on our way to become a super power, at least in the region we inhabit. With India and Pakistan no more hyphenated by the world, and certainly not by the United States, we can well forget a full scale war scenario in the near or even distant future.
So even that one aspect of life that made us seriously relevant is now fading away.
With just 13 MPs in the Lok Sabha in coalition times, and with three parties to share the numbers, Punjab is no more relevant even in the one House that matters.
That brings us face to face with a worrying reality: Punjab's intervention in the Indian national political scene is virtually missing.
Unfortunately, an impression seems to have been generated, more because of the force of circumstances than any serious application of mind, that an intervention is possible only through the arena of electoral politics. That leaves only the mainstream hankerers after party tickets as any serious interventionists.
It is time people in Punjab ponder seriously about our missing civil society. Is it not possible to remain relevant without spending scarce and precious resources in election campaigning?
A whole number of engaged institutions involved in the social and religious domain stay away from the elections, as do many bodies in the field of education, culture and intellectual exercises. This is a phenomena seen the world over. Why should Punjab's men of letters, academicians, activists, NGOs not prefer to avoid being dragged into the dirty cesspool of electoral politics?
Some will call it the right approach as our politicians have little use for men of intellect or those making any real contribution towards the community and society but it will be naive to think that such a deduction is absolutely right.
A community's political life is more nuanced and subtle than a simple rejection of the election process or a decision to stay away from it, at least proactively, and confine oneself to merely trudging to the polling booth and casting our votes.
Democracy is not merely about casting the vote. That is a reductionist view of democracy that the politicians have or love. Entrenched interests in Punjab have deliberately reduced the definition of democracy to a so-called gift to the people of an ability to vote every five years. Punjabis need to interpret the democratic notions more broadly and see the ways in which one can engage oneself with the democratic process.
We see in Punjab that the political parties often do not take a stand on issues that impact our lives but make much noise about certain other issues. This happens because we do not have engaged activists and a concerned media that asks the right
For example, what is the Akali Dal's stand on Foreign Direct Investment caps in media sector? Or the Samajwadi Party's stand on the Sri Lanka question? What do we know about the Bahujan Samaj Party's stand on the Kashmir issue? Will Sardar Rattan Singh Ajnala please tell us his view on the big dams, since he has a vote in Parliament? And what is Navjot Singh Sidhu's view on Copenhagen's failures?
Parties at the state level think they can afford to simply stay mum and not have a view on most matters and they have coached their electorate in such ways that there is no pressure on them to spell out their policy.
But must that be the Punjabis' approach? Should we not question more sharply so that at least we force political parties to send better equipped men and women to Parliament who can draft laws and vote on them with some visible grey matter usage?
All we need to do is to make ourselves aware of the issues and then understand that electoral politics is not the only way to make an intervention in politics. Of the many ways of making a meaningful change through politics, the electoral politics is only one. There are umpteen examples of how a meaningful change can be made in the realm of ideation and in pursuing policy matters. A movement on the political front may not necessarily come through the electoral arena. Our politicians, or at least most of them, are masters of the political electoral arena which has place only for the corrupted and the degenerate.We are all aware of the role of money, muscle and mafia in the elections, and the story remains the same not just in the Lok Sabha polls but also Assembly, municipal committees and even panchayat elections.
Let us look at the ways in which people have impacted the political debate in India without being sucked into the vortex of dirty electioneering. Look at the work of Aruna Roy, a Chennai-born self-less Indian political and social activist who quit the IAS in mid-70s and is known for her campaigns to better the lives of the rural poor and empowered millions in Rajasthan through successful enactment of Rajasthan Right to Information Act and is largely credited with the success of RTI Act across India. This Magsaysay Award winner has impacted the course of political debate in India more than anyone among us.
Consider Jean Drèze, a development economist of Belgian origin who along with Amartya Sen has extensively engaged with issues of rural poverty, famine, policy reforms etc and has empowered millions with his relentless work on an employment guarantee scheme in India which ensures work for the poor.
All those who are behind a scheme like the NREGA are people who have made a significant contribution towards saving hundreds of thousands of lives and are giving hope to millions. It is easy to sit back and blast NREGA if one if one is devoid of the notions of poverty but for those who know Indian politics, it should be clear that the RTI and NREGA are two center pieces of a work that has been pushed by people essentially outside the electoral arena.
Men like Rajendra Singh, the well known water conservationist from Alwar, Rajasthan who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership for his pioneering work in water management and holy men like Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal and Sant Sewa Singh of Khadoor Sahib can impact the terms of political debate in Punjab more than the lip service being paid by the politicians to the falling ground water table and the state of our rivers.
Where are the civil society activists working to save Punjab? Had a political party been working single-mindedly to focus on the state of our government-run schools, it would have meant more for the people than the filibustering on umpteen issues. We hardly have a proactive NGO other than Seechewal's efforts or that of the Kheti Virasat Mission on the environment front.
Politics is changing, and also changing are the ways in which one is seen as political. For far too long we have remained stuck in a groove in which talking about certain issues is considered politics and rest be damned.
It is time that we became political, time that we understood that Rajinder Singh's ideas of saving and harvesting water, Seechewal's resistance to dumping industrial waste into rivers, all the talk about environment, Umendra Dutt's loud protests against Bt Brinjal and chemical fertilizers are not just about environment; they are hugely political interventions. These actions will be deciding our politics. Punjab's politicians are pushing the envelope on the neoliberal urban centric model of development which is leaving out and aside the teeming millions. Across India, more than eight million people have been pushed out of agriculture and there is no record or study of where they went and what they are doing. In Punjab, apathy has replaced the feeling of ennui which replaced the feeling of guilt whenever the number of people who committed suicide is mentioned. Every 30 minutes in India, one farmer has been committing suicide since 1997 (that is, ever since the government started collecting data). That the data itself is highly conservative and deliberately understated is a separate story. In Punjab, one farmer commits suicide every day, as per the latest data being compiled by the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.
Those who have been demanding land reforms, the farmers who know the best how to save the environment are at the receiving end. The corporate media in Punjab has remained completely silent after the day light murder of a tall farmer leader.
Has any political party made an issue of the fact that thousands seemed to have committed suicide at a time when Punjab revenue records, cited by the state government, showed merely 130 suicides? To be an environmentalist is to be political. To ask about teacher-student ratio in government primary schools is to be political. To try and understand what genetically modified foods can do to our future is to be political.
To be an environmentalist is to be political. To ask about teacher-student ratio in government primary schools is to be political. To try and understand what genetically modified foods can do to our future is to be political. To question our law makers about big dams, about the need for super highways, about the malls dotting our cities, about the SEZ’s everywhere, is political. On this environment day, let's all resolve to be political. Being political is about being human. Rajneeti is not about a Bollywood film. It is about us.
On this environment day, let's all resolve to be political.