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The peasant path for a landlord's party

The rise of Zamindara Party in Rajasthan

Sunny Sebastian (sebastian.sunny@gmail.com) is currently the Vice-Chancellor of Haridev University of Journalism and Mass Communication, Jaipur. He was formerly Deputy Editor of The Hindu in Rajasthan. 

Following on the surprise victory in the Rajasthan assembly elections, the National Unionist Zamindara Party is betting big on its prospects in the Lok Sabha Elections by eating into the Left’s vote bank. Money power coupled with the broad basing of backward classes is keeping the conversation going about Rajasthan’s newest entrant into electoral politics. 

The north-western districts of Rajasthan are witnessing an unusual socio-political phenomenon in the emergence of the National Unionist Zamindara Party (NUZP). A combination of factors including issues of local development and promise of higher prices to agricultural commodities in the farm-rich districts of Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh have helped the nascent party to emerge as a challenge to the main political parties in the state, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is, again, threatening to uproot the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from one of its existing bases among the farmers of the Indira Gandhi Canal area.

NUZP with a rather intriguing name, registered as a political party by businessman B D Agarwal in 2013, defies the definition of a conventional political party as its rallying point is an agricultural product Guar, a legume grown mostly in this part of the country, which of late has developed considerable potential for export.

NUZP – First Foray into Politics

In its first foray into electoral politics in the assembly elections in Rajasthan in November-December 2013 the party could get two of its 25 candidates elected and procure 1.03 % of the total votes polled. The party claims to have a base of 3.5 lakh guar farmers in Rajasthan to start with.

What is important is, among the political parties which fought the state assembly elections  in 2013, NUZP ranked fifth in the number of votes received and the number of seats won,  after the BJP (163), the Congress (21), the National  People’s Party (4) and Bahujan Samaj Party (3) in the 200-strong Rajasthan assembly. In the past both the BJP and the Congress tried to woo NUZP but failed.

The party got into the national limelight during the assembly polls as two of its candidates, Vimla Jindal and Kamini Jindal, wife and daughter respectively of B D Agarwal jointly declared assets worth Rs.2, 960 crores in the election. This was more than the combined assets declared by all the 400 candidates who fought on the BJP and the Congress tickets. Vimla Jindal withdrew her candidature later while Kamini Jindal is now a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Sriganganagar

In November 2013 Agarwal spoke of winning as many as 50 seats in the Rajasthan assembly after announcing to contest from 150 and playing a crucial role in the formation of the future government in the state. He had predicted an undercurrent in favour of his nascent party which would lead to the other parties losing their deposits in many constituencies. However, ultimately the party settled for fighting from 26 seats.

Green Gold – Guar               

Guar itself is termed as “green gold” by its cultivators and traders in Rajasthan and the neighbouring Haryana and Punjab.  Jokes like “what now the thieves look for is Guar, and not ornaments,” abounded during the dizzy days when the berry price went up to Rs.30,000 per quintal  in the international market in 2012. Overnight, hundreds of farmers in Sriganganagar-Hanumangarh area and in neighbouring Haryana’s Abhor-Sirsa belt seemed to be reaping a fortune. 

India and Pakistan are the main growers of guar and the former alone accounts for 80 % of the guar production in the world. guar is grown in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat as well but Rajasthan accounts for 70 % of the crop. Cluster beans have replaced traditional crops of cotton, bajra, soybean and mustard in Rajasthan’s canal belt, stretching up to Bikaner, Jodhpur and Barmer.

The area under guar reportedly doubled in Rajasthan in the past one decade. In the wake of heightened demand for the product, 3.5 million hectares were brought under guar cultivation in 2013 in the state. guar is considered a valuable plant for the farmers as it increases   soil fertility, growing in symbiosis with nitrogen fixing bacteria in soil and is drought tolerant as well.

Traditionally used for human and animal consumption and in pharmaceuticals, paper manufacturing and the textile industry, guar (Cyamopsis tetragonoloba) in powder form of late is put to use in oil drilling and as an adhesive in shale gas. Guar gum is exported to some 30 countries and multinational companies including Nestle, Mars, Heinz and Unilever are among its users.   

The Case of the Agarwals

B D Agarwal, a shrewd businessman who hails from Hisar in Haryana, started with a trust, Meghraj Jindel Charitable Trust before foraying into the “business” of farmers’ politics. Later he set up a unit in Sriganganagar for processing guar into gum or powder for export with his late brother, Bal Mukund Jindal. When the guar prices went up sometime in 2012 Vikas WSP, established by the family in 1988 procured all the guar seeds available in the market and was looking for more.

And Agarwal’s company made big money. The price fetched by guar gum was three times that of guar berry. The profit margins were so huge that the company, in order to increase production, offered free seeds to as many as one lakh farmers. Money was so dispensable for Agarwal that he could offer the then Rajasthan government, headed by Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Rs.100 crore for establishing a medical college in Sriganganagar. Agarwal shocked the media as well as the public when he sent an emissary to Jaipur to the Chief Minister’s office sometime in 2013 with a cheque for Rs.100 crore.

Agarwal’s La Via Campesina or the peasant path was no coincidence. “He used guar as an entry point. Using a variety of ingredients such as farm produce prices, starting a medical college, opening an agricultural university and opening up the Indo-Pakistan borders along Sriganganagar at Hindumalkot for establishing a free trade zone, he tried to win over the local population and succeeded to a great extent to remain in public gaze,” noted Ramprakash Meel, a journalist in Sriganganagar, who has been watching B D Agarwal’s activities since start.  “He even speculated that free trade zone would create 90,000 new jobs and his trust inserted advertisements seeking applications for those”, Meel pointed out.

Business meets Politics

Consciously or due to business considerations - which later turned into efforts at political mobilisation - Agarwal remained in constant touch with the farming community of the area. He has been often guiding both the farmers and the middle level stockists with information on the international market of guar and the need to hold the produce till the demand peaked.

Agarwal manipulated the existing socio-political situation in the region cashing in on the growing aspirations of the public. Being a predominantly agricultural area the region is devoid of any factory or leading educational institutions. Another initiative Agarwal carried out along with his guar gum revolution was instituting hundreds of scholarships for school and college going students. He brought forward his daughter Kamini, who is married to an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer serving in Rajasthan, as the youth icon. Kamini, educated abroad, has authored a treatise, Youth without regret showing a road map to today’s youth.

The legacy of Chhotu Ram

Agarwal has cleverly picked up his party’s name from the legend of Rai Bahadur Sir Chhotu Ram (November 24, 1881 –January 9, 1945), the founder of National Unionist Party and later Punjab Unionist Party.

Hailing from Garhi Sampla of Rohtak now in Haryana, Chhotu Ram did his graduation from St. Stephen’s Delhi and law degree from Agra College. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1916 and was the district president of Rohtak. He founded the Unionist Party (Zamindara League), an alliance of Jat and Muslim agriculturists in 1923. The land reforms he initiated – the Punjab Indebted Act 1934 and the Punjab Debtors Protection Act 1936 -were to be talking points for farmers’ leaders for generations together in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Also credited with steps which led to the Green Revolution later Chhotu Ram was also instrumental in bringing together various caste groups under the concept of “biradari” (brotherhood). It was under him that for the first time farmers from various caste groups, Ahirs, Jats, Gujjars and Rajputs, had come together to form the now well known AJGAR formation. Though considered by the Left parties as one who sided with the British, evoking the name of Sir Chhotu Ram suited Agarwal eminently, especially when it came to rallying together the   peasantry.

“The legend of Chhotu Ram is still alive in the memories of farmers of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Agarwal is cashing in on his name by adopting the old party’s name and also carrying the photo of Chhotu Ram in all the advertisements of the new party,” observed Tara Singh Siddu, State Secretary of the Communist Part of India (CPI) who hails from Sriganganagar. “Agarwal has monopoly in guar gum trade and when there was escalation in international price he could make a fortune out of it. Now the guar gum price is down and one has to see how long Agarwal can keep the middle class and upper middle class farmers glued to him,” he wondered.

Party of Big Farmers

In the post Chhotu Ram period Rajasthan too had big farmers’ leaders such as Kumbh Ram Arya and Daulat Ram Saran in the Sriganganagar-Hanumangarh-Churu region, besides Nathu Ram Mirdha in western Rajasthan. There had been solitary attempts at keeping alive the memories of Chhotu Ram. A few years back there was a move to install a statue of his in Sriganganagar town. “The CPI (M) opposed the move as the party considered him as an agent of the British while the CPI remained neutral considering his contribution to farmers. The statue anyway did not come up,” noted Siddu.

“Whatever legacy NUZP claims to inherit it remains a party of big farmers. It is one of the sub regional parties which has come up by manipulating people’s aspirations. They may make attempts to attract the middle class and the small farmers but essentially they stand for big business and globalisation,” noted Rajiv Gupta, former Head, Department of Sociology, Rajasthan University. “In neo liberal economies if you have money you invest profitably in business. Here it is B D Agarwal investing his money in a political party and he is likely to get good returns from it. We have to watch its activities in the coming days,” Gupta observed conceding that the one-year old party did well in the assembly polls.

NUZP surely behaved more like a corporate entity when it came to advertisements. On March 31 this year the party had one full cover page identical advertisement in Rajasthan’s leading dailies, with photos of B D Agarwal, Kamini Agarwal and Sona Devi Bawri, party’s other MLA, greeting the people on “Navaratra sthapana” along with the party symbol telephone and an appeal for vote. The next day, on April 1, the party again greeted people on the occasion of Sindhi festival “Cheti chand” with quarter page advertisements along with two other insertions of quarter page size detailing the party manifesto.

During the assembly elections NUZP faced charges of violation of Model Code of Conduct for advertisements published on 13 October, 2013 extending Dussehra greetings to the people, and another advertisement on 15 October, which talked about sending students abroad for studies.

Rajiv Gupta attributed part of success of NUZP to the money power. “The kind of money spent in advertisements and in organising programmes is unheard of in Rajasthan politics. I notice three-four advertisements of the party, either with Mr. Agarwal’s photo or that of his daughter in the two leading Hindi newspapers of Rajasthan on a daily basis these days,” he pointed out. “What is this Zamindara word doing in this party’s name? The country has abolished the zamindari system long time back,” he said questioning the intention of starting such a party.

NUZP eating into Left?

How has the entry of NUZP affected the prospects of the two main players and the CPI (M) which had one MLA from the region in the previous assembly? “Money attracts rich and poor alike,” Gupta, who is associated with the CPI (M) explained it this way. As for the CPI (M)’s poor showing he noted that the party benefitted when the main rivals, the BJP and the Congress, fought on an equal basis.  “We could not win the seat this time though our voting percentage remained more or less the same. It is true that we failed to attract new voters,” he conceded. 

NUZP had come second in one seat and third in three seats in the recent election. In both the places the party won, the nearest rival was the BJP. In Sriganganagar, where Kamini Jindal defeated former Minister Radheyshyam, she secured 52.51 % of the total votes polled. In Raisinghnagar (SC) the winning NUZP candidate Sona Devi polled 37.04 % of the total votes cast to defeat Balveer Singh of the BJP by 21,238 votes.

In Anupgarh (SC) where the CPI (M)’s sitting MLA Pawan Duggal contested, the BJP managed a convincing victory with 51,145 votes while NUZP came second with 39,999 votes. Duggal, a hero of Gharsana-Raola farmers’ agitation for supply of irrigation water from the canal system, came third with 37,287 votes. While in the case of Hetram Beniwal, former CPI (M) MLA and the party’s tallest leader in the area, it was age factor which left him far behind his rivals in Sadulshahar.

Curiously enough Hetram Beniwal was also part of the agitation demanding setting up a medical college in Sriganganagar. While NUZP seems to have benefitted from the demand especially after Agarwal offering Rs.100 crore for the cause and contributing Rs.21 crore as bank guarantee during the signing of Memorandum of Understanding, the Congress party did not benefit from its government conceding to the demand.

It is perhaps a poor consolation to the CPI (M) that the party did not do well in Sikar district either where it had two MLAs in the previous Assembly. In Sikar NUZP was no factor and the CPI (M) could not retain its seats.      

Future of NUZP

The nascent party thrives on selling dreams. Agarwal now talks about an Rs.1.5 lakh crore macro project for Rajasthan’s development and the party is trying to broad base by foraying into issues concerning Most Backward Classes demanding a categorisation of the existing OBC quota. The demands such as categorisation of Nayaks - a community found in large numbers in its area of operation - and seeking the opening of  more benches of Rajasthan High Court are attempts at winning the sympathy of larger sections of Rajasthan society.

The party which is planning to fight a few Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan has come out with three instalments of advertisements (what else?) in local newspapers listing 46 aspects of its proposed 110-point election manifesto. The first two instalments dominate issues related to agriculture and land such as distribution of wasteland to the landless, revision of norms in the acquisition of farmers’ land, setting up of four big seeds farms, improving irrigation facilities, the demand for opening of the free trade zone on India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan and WTO related issues. Recognition of Rajasthani as an official language in India and setting up a Disneyland in Jaipur figure feature in the remaining instalment.

From leading a  “one man party”, as the BJP leaders in Rajasthan termed NUZP during the assembly polls, and what generally was considered by the public as  “Guarwali party”, B D Agarwal’s  party is surely on an effort to break new grounds. The Sriganganagar belt, most volatile in Rajasthan and often violent with long standing feuds over farm land, is known for socio-religious movements like Dera Sacha Sauda founded by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. It surely is a fertile ground for dream merchants.  

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