New Delhi: In a bid to renew its appeal to farmers, the Congress, which heads the ruling coalition at the Centre, is now sharpening the focus of its political campaign on the contentious issue of providing adequate compensation to farmers for land acquired for industrial projects.

Coming as it does in the backdrop of the Rs66,422 crore farm loan waiver, the largest ever, implemented by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the campaign will, party officials and some analysts believe, help divert attention from the political fallout of double-digit inflation and growing frequency of terror attacks in the country.

Safe bet: Congress president Sonia Gandhi at a rally in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. Leaders say the Congress can safely highlight farmers’ issues as it is not in power in many of the states heading for elections. PTI

According to some party leaders, this is part of the party’s strategy in the run-up to the key assembly polls due before the end of the year in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, and the general election due before May next year.

“The party has decided to take up farmers’ issues in a big way," said a senior Congress leader who didn’t want to be named.

This strategy was articulated by party president Sonia Gandhi last week at a rally in Uttar Pradesh where she said farmers whose land was acquired for development work such as setting up special economic zones, or SEZs, should be adequately compensated.

Almost on cue, the party’s West Bengal unit took a surprising stand at an all-party meeting to resolve the land acquisition crisis in Singur and argued that the Left Front government in the state should return the acquired land to the unwilling farmers.

According to the Left parties, the state unit of the Congress had “unofficially assured" support for its efforts to get the Tata group to resume work in the small car project in Singur.

The Congress’ apparent flip flop, which party officials deny, has posed a setback for the state government.

Worse, its new stand of backing the opposition Trinamool Congress has strengthened the latter’s demand that the land should be returned to farmers.

The same leader said that the Congress could take advantage of the “anger and disapproval" among the farmers in West Bengal against the Bhattacharjee government’s land acquisition policies.

A Trinamool Congress leader, who is likely to forge an alliance with the Congress in West Bengal, has said that out of 967 acres or so acquired by the state government, 400 acres belonged to unwilling farmers.

The ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist or CPM had come under severe criticism for its handling of the farmers’ protests against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, where 14 protesters had been killed in police firing in March 2007.

In Uttar Pradesh that sends 80 members of Parliament (MPs) to the Lok Sabha, the state unit of the Congress has been organizing mass protests and demonstrations against Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, government over the issue.

On Friday, the UPA stepped up its pitch to farmers, when the cabinet approved a package that would ensure that soft loans continued to flow to agriculture, despite the sharp spurt in interest rates in the economy.

Sachin Pilot, Congress MP from Rajasthan’s Dausa constituency, who has been actively organizing protest marches against Mayawati government’s “forcible acquisition" of farmers’ land in Uttar Pradesh, admitted that the party has decided to gather mass support for the issue.

“Congress is taking up issue-based support for the farmers’ community. One must remember the first national leader who raised voice against unjust acquisition of land was Sonia Gandhi," Pilot said.

“It is a sensitive issue for a country in which agriculture provides livelihood for 60% of the population. I believe that the farmers have the freedom to decide on their own land," he said.

Congress leaders also claim that the party could project the issue without drawing much criticism as it is not in power in many states. Since the constitution of India defines agriculture as a state subject the onus is on the incumbent state government.

They also pointed out that the party, which had declared no farmland for industrialization at the Congress chief ministers’ conclave in Nainital in 2006, changed its emphasis to “proper compensation for farmers."

In Orissa, ruled by the Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition, the protests over land acquisition has halted South Korean company Posco’s plans to set up a $12 billion (Rs56,280 crore) project, Tata Steel Ltd’s project in Kalinganagar and a Rs24,000 crore Vedanta university project in Puri. The Congress state unit had directly and indirectly backed these protests.

“The Congress-ruled states handle land acquisition issues sensitively," Gandhi said at the public meeting referring to their experience in Haryana.

Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who was also present at the Dadri rally claimed that the state had successfully acquired land for industries and paid adequate compensation that ranged from Rs12 lakh (for arid land) to Rs80 lakh.

The Congress had organized protest demonstrations against a land acquisition process in Badalpur village—the native village of chief minister Mayawati—for setting up a ‘world-class’ recreation centre project by the state government.

Uttar Pradesh Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi said the protest was not only limited to Badalpur and Greater Noida but also extended to the decision of the state government to acquire farm land for development of the 800-km-long Ganga Expressway.

“Congress has been making attempts to recover the lost base there through gaining support among the farmers. The loan waiver announced in the last Budget was a part of that strategy... These rallies are also tuned to that only," said Bidyut Chakraborty, a professor in department of political science in Delhi University.

However, political analyst B.G. Varghese of the Centre for Policy Research said it would be “foolish" for the Congress party to indulge in agitation politics to bring up the farmers’ issue for electoral gains.

“What the farmers need is constructive action. If the party-led government is not doing enough to save the farmers from committing suicide and take up agitations for farmers’ cause—which I do not think that it would do—it will be an absolute foolish agenda," Varghese said.