In poll season, Punjab parties walk on eggshells around farmers’ stir 2.0 - Hindustan Times

In poll season, Punjab parties walk on eggshells around farmers’ stir 2.0

Mar 04, 2024 07:58 AM IST

Though the farmers’ protest 2.0 is a pale shadow of the 2020-21 stir in scale and intensity, it is dominating the narrative in the state ahead of the April-May LS elections

When thousands of farmers from Punjab started their Delhi Chalo march on February 13 to press for legally guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) on all crops, farm loan waiver and other demands, they were aiming for a rerun of their 2020-2021 stir that had forced the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre to repeal its three contentious farm laws.

Farmers during their ongoing protest, at the Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border, in Patiala district. (PTI)
Farmers during their ongoing protest, at the Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border, in Patiala district. (PTI)

But this time, the protesters’ convoys of tractor-trolleys have not been able to make it past the Punjab-Haryana border. They were met with concrete blocks, barbed wires and firing of tear gas and rubber bullets at the Haryana border itself, thwarting their plans to enter the state like the last time when they had parked themselves on Haryana borders with the National Capital.

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And the previous movement had far-reaching political implications in Punjab, forcing the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to break its ties of 24 years with the BJP and helping the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) make inroads into rural areas just in time for the 2022 state assembly polls. It also hurt the prospects of the Congress, which was in power in the state and supported the farmers, but was consumed by its own internal bickering at the most crucial stages of the agitation.

Though the farmers’ protest 2.0, spearheaded by Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM, non-political) and Kisan Mazdoor Morcha (KMM), is a pale shadow of the 2020-21 stir in scale and intensity and has remained confined to Punjab, it is dominating the narrative and impacting politics in the state ahead of the April-May parliamentary elections.

A tough balancing act for AAP

Like the last time, the AAP, which is now in power in Punjab, has gone all out to show its support to the protesting farmers this time too, with chief minister Bhagwant Mann playing the intermediary in four rounds of talks between farmer leaders and three central ministers in Chandigarh. “I am your advocate,” he repeatedly told the farmers, urging the central government to accept their demands.

However, the AAP government has been facing a challenging situation from the time the Haryana government used force to stop the protesters and a young farmer, Shubh Karan Singh, died in a clash between farmers and security personnel at Khanauri on the inter-state border. Though Mann promptly announced a compensation of 1 crore for Shubh Karan’s family and a government job for his sister, there was an eight-day-long standoff over the autopsy of the protester as leaders of the SKM (non-political) and KMM refused to allow it till an FIR was registered against the policemen responsible for the death. The farm outfits consented to the autopsy after the Patiala police registered a zero FIR at Patran police station on Wednesday night as the area where the incident happened fell in jurisdiction of Jind police, but other farmer unions have rejected it. TheSamyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of 37 farm unions that has kept a distance from the ongoing protest so far, has called the FIR against “unnamed” police personnel an eyewash.

The state government has been doing a tough balancing act to try and meet the farmer unions’ expectations from it.

For Cong, a shot at gaining political mileage

The opposition, particularly the Congress, has also been attacking the government over its handling of the protest and failure to name the Haryana police personnel in the FIR. While Congress national president Mallikarjun Kharge has promised to give the legal guarantee for MSP to farmers if the INDIA bloc comes to power, its state leaders are trying to steal a march on the ruling party by holding demonstrations and taking out tractor rallies in support of the protesting farmers. Though AAP is also a member of INDIA bloc, there is no alliance between the two parties in Punjab.

A spanner in SAD-BJP’s alliance talks

The agitation has come as a double blow for the SAD at a time when it was on the verge of stitching an alliance with BJP to pep-up its poll prospects. Both parties are now in a dilemma over the timing of a formal announcement. The SAD was also forced to suspend its mass contact programme, ‘Punjab Bachao Yatra’, launched on February 1, two days after 17 farm organisations under the banner ofSKM(non-political) started the Delhi march. In September 2020, the SAD had severed ties with the saffron party to show solidarity towards the farm organisations after it had earned criticism from the peasantry for its flip-flop of initially supporting the now-repealed farm laws and then rejecting them. Later, the Akalis entered into an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which snapped the ties last month amid speculation of the former cosying up to BJP again.

The SAD-BJP alliance plans were, however, disrupted by the farmer unions’ Delhi Chalo call even though both parties had more or less worked out the seat-sharing arrangement and only an announcement was awaited.

The BJP, which faced the wrath of the protesters in 2020-21, is again at the receiving end as Punjab farmers blame the party’s government at the Centre for pushing them to protest by not accepting their demands. While the farm organisations had blocked the entry of BJP leaders into villages and even heckled them during the previous stir, the situation has not reached a flashpoint this time.

Political observers say the SAD may not like to annoy the peasants further at a stage when its popularity is at its lowest and the party has been voicing its support for them at various forums, including Parliament where Bathinda MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal has backed the farmers’ demands in her speeches. The reason: there are 62-65 assembly seats in the state which are predominantly rural with strong presence of Jat Sikh population and seen as the SAD’s route to recovery of lost ground. The remaining 52-55 assembly seats are primarily urban where the BJP sees its support.

The two parties are waiting for the right time and the agitation (by the peasants) has put a spanner in the plans, said a senior Akali leader, requesting anonymity. “The talks for re-stitching the alliance have been kept in abeyance for the time being, but the delay will adversely impact their poll prospects. Both parties are desperate for alliance,” said political scientist Jagrup Singh Sekhon, who remained head of political science department of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

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