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What lies ahead for the BJP after change of course on farm laws

On record, most BJP leaders deny that the laws would have had a negative fallout in Uttar Pradesh, where it is hoping to return to power with a majority
Farmers celebrate at a protest site on the Delhi-Haryana border crossing in Singhu, in New Delhi on Friday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Centre would scrape the three farm laws ahead of crucial state elections. (Bloomberg)
Updated on Nov 20, 2021 02:10 AM IST
BySmriti Kak Ramachandran, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on Friday of repealing the three contentious farm laws is seen as an intervention that will blunt the Opposition’s attacks against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming assembly polls in five states, and prevent a coalition of opposition parties from taking shape. In at least two of these five poll-bound states, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the farm agitation is a burning issue.

Party leaders who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while the announcement is unlikely to change the political fortunes of the BJP in Punjab, where the party lacks a strong cadre and leadership, it will help alter the narrative in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand where the agitation has given Opposition ammunition.

“The outcome of the recent bypolls in Himachal Pradesh, where the farm agitation is barely visible, has sounded an alarm. The violence that broke out in Lakhimpur Kheri (in UP)… the ground reports from Uttarakhand -- all indicated that the farm agitation could act as glue for anti-government sentiments,” said a BJP leader in Delhi.

On record, most BJP leaders deny that the laws would have had a negative fallout in Uttar Pradesh, where it is hoping to return to power with a majority.

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Vijay Pal Tomar, BJP MP from UP and a former president of the BJP Kisan Morcha, said the decision was based on the “mahual” (atmosphere) that was shaping around the protest sites. He said the government took an overall view of what would be “best in national interest”.

But some party leaders conceded that the BJP hopes the repeal will help it recover lost ground in western UP, where its performance on a sizeable number of seats, between 100 and 120, hinges on the farm vote.

“There are many issues such as Covid, economy, and the overall dip in employment avenues that the government’s performance is being measured on. Putting an end to the reason for the agitation will help improve public perception,” said the first BJP leader.

An MP from western UP was even more candid. “It has been difficult for us to participate in public events; people’s anger was palpable. Hopefully that will change.”

In Punjab, where the BJP will be contesting alone for the first time since its break-up with the Shiromani Akali Dal, (SAD) the party is hoping that the decision will pan out favourably for it and its possible new ally, the front floated by former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.

SAD’s Naresh Gujral, said it may be too soon to comment on the impact that the announcement could have on political formations in Punjab and whether the BJP stands to benefit. “In a democracy, everybody is free to do what they like. Both (BJP and Singh) are on a weak wicket. So, let’s see how it pans out. Today’s announcement is not an aspirin that you take and the headache goes away immediately. Over 1,000 farmers have lost their lives. It’s been a struggle that has gone on for over a year, so I don’t see making this one announcement will change the entire political scenario.”

Another reason cited for the repeal is the security issue flagged by some agencies as well as Singh during his meetings with the PM, home minister, and the National Security Adviser in the Capital in September.

According to a BJP leader in Punjab, the party and its ideological mentor the RSS were worried about the influence of secessionists and Khalistan sympathisers on the agitation.

“A lot of young people were being influenced by the Khalistani supporters. The agitation became a ground for manipulating anti-India sentiment. Given Punjab’s history with terrorism and its strategic location (proximity to Pakistan), it was imperative to address these concerns,” this person added.

The RSS was particularly peeved by the agitation taking the shape of a Sikh versus Hindu conflict. A senior functionary of the RSS said the cadre was instructed to reach out to religious heads and the village elders to drive home the necessity of amity between the Sikhs and the Hindus.

Change of tack

While senior party leaders were quick to point out that the unexpected decision was in line with the party’s stratagem of shaping policy that benefits the masses; the discomfiture of some over the change of tack was visible.

After the government made no headway with the farmers following multiple rounds of talks, some in the BJP raised questions about the genesis of the protest; linked it to a larger conspiracy against the government; and raised an alarm over the influx of “anti-national elements” in the agitation.

However, after the PM’s outreach to the farmers on Friday, some leaders said the change in stance will be hard to explain during campaigning.

“Earlier the line was clear that the laws would benefit 80% of the farmers. The PM himself referred to the protestors as Andolanjeevis,” said a second RSS leader. The RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh was guarded in its response to the decision, while it welcomed the setting up of a committee to deal with the issue of minimum support price, it was not enthused by the government repealing the laws, which it said would not favour farmers in the long run.

Another BJP leader, however, said the rollback will not impact the PM’s image or the party’s as the BJP will leverage the decision as manifestation of its pro-people stance. “The Opposition labelled the PM as arrogant, even today the Congress used that term for him; but his apology to a section of farmers on national TV shows that he has his ear to the ground and people’s best interest in mind. There is no dent in his image.”

Some BJP leaders are also concerned that Friday’s announcement could throw open the floodgates for similar demands by groups seeking the roll-back of other laws. “The labour code are already facing opposition, there is a chance that the winter session will see the opposition parties amp up their protests over proposed laws,” said the first leader.

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