The Congress had stormed to power in the state in 2017 after a decade on the back of its promise of a farm loan waiver, which helped it sweep the farmer-dominated Majha and large parts of the Malwa region of the state. Chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh told ET that “after waiving farmers’ debts, we want to now go forward and make them totally free of any debts by ensuring their financial security, which the BJP-led central government’s new laws simply cannot do, and we won’t let these laws enter Punjab”.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is seeking to portray itself as the true saviour of farmers, with its president Sukhbir Badal citing “the big sacrifice of Harsimrat Badal kicking away her chair as (Union) minister”, but despite lashing out at the Centre over the bills the party remains part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had collapsed in Punjab after a spectacular debut, is hoping for a revival and its state chief Bhagwant Mann told ET that farmers are again looking at AAP.
By introducing the bills that it insists will usher in farm reforms, the BJP finds itself completely isolated in Punjab.
Congress in Pole Position
The Congress support for farmers was underlined by the CM’s announcement that no farmer would be acted against under Section 144 during Friday’s Punjab Bandh, even as Covid-19 protocol bans such large protest gatherings. The ruling party, under state president Sunil Jakhar, officially joined and even organised some farmer protests. The Congress had polled 40% votes in both the 2017 state election and 2019 general election, enough for the party to win big in triangular contests. Besides farmers, other stakeholders in the agriculture system such as arhtiyas (commission agents) may also rally behind the Congress now.
“Arhtiyas are an essential part in the whole system,” the CM told ET. “And why just Arhtiyas, there are others involved, such as farm labour, mandi labourers, etc., who will be adversely affected by these new laws. My topmost priority is to protect farmers, most of whom will not survive if the new system comes into place.”
The Congress has also questioned the BJP’s intentions behind rushing the farm bills through Parliament. “At a time when China and Covid are breathing down your neck, first you brought an ordinance and now rammed through a law in Parliament. What was the tearing hurry? This makes the entire government intentions mala fide,” said the party’s Rajya Sabha member Partap Singh Bajwa, who led the debate in the upper house.
Bajwa said farmers of Punjab are convinced that the larger intention is to ultimately scrap the Food Corporation of India and public procurement and allow entry of corporates and US investors into India’s agriculture market. “Otherwise, why not stipulate guaranteeing MSP (minimum support price) in the new law?” he said.
Will Akalis Walk the Talk?
The SAD’s stock has been falling in Punjab as it crashed to the third position in the 2017 assembly election behind AAP and won only two seats in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, both by Badal family members, as its vote share dropped to 26%. That the party stayed on in the government while the ordinances were passed and even when the laws were approved in Cabinet has worked against the SAD on the ground in Punjab, though Sukhbir Badal has sought to make amends by saying it was only he and his wife Harsimrat who voiced their opposition to the bills in Parliament.
“There were 350 MPs on the other side and just two of us shouting no when the bill was passed in Lok Sabha. Congress and AAP had walked out,” said Badal. He also said Harsimrat’s resignation was a major sacrifice, as even Sikh leaders such as Giani Zail Singh and Buta Singh had not resigned after Operation Bluestar in Punjab. “There is only one farmer leader in Punjab – my father Prakash Singh Badal. He called to praise me when Harsimrat resigned,” he said.
Captain Amarinder Singh, however, said the Akalis have “lost any chance they might have had to win back the hearts of the people, who suffered immensely in the 10 years of the SAD-BJP misrule”. He said the SAD has been totally exposed in the eyes of the people with their unprincipled change in stand not just on the farm bills but on many other important issues before that. “What is the point of criticising the laws now, obviously under electoral compulsion? They are still part of the NDA,” he said.
Another senior Congress leader, who did not wish to be identified, however said that SAD patron Prakash Singh Badal, 92, does carry credibility, while his son Sukhbir’s image is found to be wanting. “Many SAD leaders are in touch with the Congress now to join us,” said the Congress leader. Clearly, the SAD needs to walk out of the NDA before it can expect the farmers of Punjab to take the party seriously.
AAP Hopes for a Resurgence
AAP won 20 seats in the 2017 state election, collapsing during the campaign after perception gained ground of the party hobnobbing with Khalistani elements. In 2019, the party secured only one Lok Sabha seat, Sangrur, won by Bhagwant Mann, and its vote share dropped to 8% from 24% in 2017. It sorely needs a new political narrative in Punjab. Mann said he will prove to be a true farmer and son of the soil.
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