Punjab BJP chief Ashwani Sharma firmly believes that farmers will ultimately see benefits of the new laws.(Gurminder Singh/HT)
Punjab BJP chief Ashwani Sharma firmly believes that farmers will ultimately see benefits of the new laws.(Gurminder Singh/HT)

No rethink on farm laws, but will reach out to farmers again for talks: Punjab BJP chief Ashwani Sharma

HT INTERVIEW Facing unrelenting fury of farmers and political heat from the opposition parties over the farm laws, the BJP in Punjab finds itself in a tight spot. Left alone, after the rupture of its alliance with the Akalis, it is hard pressed to defend the Modi government’s contentious decision that may potentially bedevil its ambition to expand its base in the rural areas ahead of the 2022 assembly elections. Leading the saffron party’s firefighting is its Punjab president Ashwani Sharma, 56, who sounded confident about the Centre pacifying the farmers, in an interview with Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak and Principal Reporter Ravinder Vasudeva. Excerpts:
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON OCT 19, 2020 08:47 AM IST

Three farm laws, enacted by the Centre, are facing an unprecedented opposition in Punjab. The BJP is the target of both farmers and major political parties. What is your reading of the situation?

Our party is absolutely sure that these laws will ensure protection and freedom to farmers to sell their crops and, thus, strengthen their financial position. Moreover, this new system will not, in any way, is tamper with the minimum support price (MSP) and mandis under the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act. Every party in Punjab is opposing these laws due to their personal reasons and political goals. The ruling Congress’s rant is a diversionary tactic on its failure on the lofty promises --- farm debt waiver, jobs to every household, and drug-free Punjab --- it had made before coming to power in 2017. That is why the Capt Amarinder Singh government latched onto the farm laws as a deflector and started instigating the farmers to oppose it.

Our former alliance partner (Shiromani Akali Dal) batted for the bills for three months. Their claim they were never consulted is a blatant lie. The core group of both parties in Punjab had threadbare discussions. They (Akalis) praised the draft bills but asked for assurance from the Centre on the MSP and procurement through APMCs. This conversation happened between me and chotte Badal Sahib (Sukhbir Singh Badal). On their insistence, I spoke to Union agriculture minister who sent a letter on assurances within 12 hours. Ideally, both alliance partners should have gone public on this together. But, the SAD chief, in a bid to take the credit, rushed to hold the press conference and revealed the letter. The real problem of Akalis was that they were desperately looking to reclaim the political ground they had lost since the Bargari sacrilege episode. In a bid to bounce back in perception game, Akali Dal did a U-turn on farm laws and pulled out of the National Democratic Alliance ( NDA).

The Aam Aadmi Party’s opposition (to farm laws) is also dictated by the realisation that their Punjab base has been shrinking. But, BJP has a firm belief that satya ko pahunchane main der lag sakti hai,par satya kabhi parajit nahin hota (truth can be delayed but it cannot be defeated).

Was the state BJP consulted during the discussion on framing of these laws at the Centre?

Usually, the Centre consults only the elected stakeholders, and chief ministers of many states were taken on board. Punjab finance minister was also part of that process. Punjab BJP unit was consulted before the Union government brought the ordinances on farm reforms. Since this carried nothing against farmers, there was no reason to raise doubt. Opposition parties are telling farmers that the Adanis and Ambanis will take over their lands and they will be turned labourers. This is a patently false propaganda.

Despite assurances by Prime Minister and agriculture minister, farmers are not convinced and are unrelenting on their agitation. Is that a sign of trust deficit between both the sides?

I don’t think so. But when three or four people start talking lies and only one person is defending it, doubts are bound to be raised. I’ve no hesitation in accepting we lacked --- I won’t say we failed --- in convincing the farmers on these laws. But I am fully confident that farmers will ultimately see the benefits of the new laws. Right now, our only task is to convince the farmers. Once that is done, those (political parties) opposing it will be knocked out.

Right now, it seems like BJP versus farmers. Last week, your cavalcade was attacked. There are reports of ban on entry of your party leaders to villages.

I don’t want to make any comment on the farmers’ agitation. Farmer is our anndata, and the Centre is also very serious about his welfare. Many forces and factors are at play in these agitations. ‘Kisan ka tau sirf naam hai, khel rajneeti ka ho raha hai’ (politics is being played in the name of farmers). On their mind are the 2022 assembly elections. Three or four parties are blocking our entries into villages because they see us as a political threat. It’s a big game involving anti-BJP political parties and those linked to Communist ideology. Those obstructing our outreach are the people who want to disturb the hard-earned peace and communal harmony of Punjab. This is very disturbing.

Farmers went to meet the Union agriculture secretary for talks. But they walked out as no central minister met them especially when eight of them were holding virtual meetings in Punjab on the issue. Was it not an opportunity lost?

Farmers were called by the agriculture secretary, not the minister. The meeting went on for two hours. Farmer bodies submitted two memorandums and issues were discussed in detail. How can this be called a boycott? The secretary even assured to forward their demands to the agriculture minister and seek his response. The Centre’s doors are open. As far as meeting the agriculture minister, we shall make that happen, too.

So farmers may be invited again for talks?

Why not? Our channels with farmers and the Union government are open. We will again be reaching out to farmers. A seven-member committee of the state BJP led by former minister Surjit Jyani is in touch with farmer unions.

How would you pacify the farmers?

Sampark aur samvaad se (through contact and dialogue).

Some quarters say that national BJP leadership doesn’t appreciate the sensitivities of Punjab. A prominent Sikh face of your Punjab unit who resigned alleged that the party is anti-Punjab.

Those who are saying all this want to make Punjab a state what it used to be 30 years ago. They label us not just as anti-Punjab, but even anti-Sikh. But, look at what the BJP government has done to understand how it understands the Punjab psyche: Opening up of the Kartarpur sahib corridor, justice for the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, abolition of the black list of Sikh NRIs, special package for Sultanpur Lodhi, celebration of 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh. Does all this show the BJP as anti-Punjab or anti-Sikhs? The fact is that only the BJP thinks pro-Sikhs, not the Congress.

Is there any scope for rethink on farm laws?

Rethink will be there if there is anything against the farmers in these laws. There is nothing like that. Yes, if farmers want some addition or deletion, it will also be done on the table, but not on the roads. Farmers should continue their channels of negotiation.

The key demand of protesting farmers is that MSP be made a legal right?

That has never been so before. The MSP has all along been an administrative order. No political party can dare to end or even touch it.

The Punjab assembly will hold a special session tomorrow apparently to pass a bill to nullify the central farm laws. What will be the BJP MLAs stand in the House?

The BJP stand firmly in favour of the laws. We don’t have any doubt.

How will the end of 24-year-old SAD-BJP alliance impact your party in Punjab?

Jo hota hai achhe ke liye hota hai. At one time, BJP used to contest 66 of 117 seats in Punjab. In 1996, for the sake of communal harmony and peace, BJP formed an alliance with Akalis and agreed to contest only 23 seats. Today, the BJP is not what it used to be 10 years back. We have organisation structure in every assembly segment.

There is a talk in political circles about that BJP aligning with breakaway Akali factions, including one led by Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa ?

Hum samajik sanstha ya bhajan mandali nahin hain (we are not a charity organisation or a religious group). We are into politics and will welcome any one keen to ally with us.

Are you open to Navjot Singh Sidhu’s ‘ghar wapsi’ to the BJP?

Sidhu at present is Congress’s problem. It is up to them how to deal with it. Whosoever wants to come is welcome. Let’s wait for an appropriate time. ‘Ye halke halke badal hain, jo thode dino main chhatt jayenge (These small clouds would disappear in coming days). Then, the sun will rise and the lotus will bloom.

Chief minister Amarinder Singh apprehends that the tumult over farm laws may be exploited by Pakistan?

If the head of any state, who is constitutionally responsible to uphold law and order and peace in the state, will start giving such statements, it only incites people. He should act as a chief minister. Barring a few political parties, nobody wants Punjab’s peace to be disturbed. The central government is alive to the situation.

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