Union minister Harsimrat Badal’s resignation from the Cabinet signals an unusually strong stand taken by her party, Shiromani Akali Dal, against a move taken by its long-time ally BJP. Her resignation was in protest against three ordinances — The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 — promulgated by the NDA government, which has now tabled Bills in Lok Sabha to replace these.
Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal has said the party was never consulted on the ordinances, and that Harsimrat , his wife, had told the government about farmers’ reservations. Farmers in Haryana and Punjab have been agitating against the ordinances/Bills. The party voted against the Bills.
Less than a month ago, the Akalis had been defending the ordinances. Just before a one-day Punjab Assembly session on August 28, Sukhbir Badal had released a letter from Union Agriculture Minister Narender Singh Tomar saying the practice of procuring grains at a minimum support price (MSP) will remain unchanged. He had accused Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of misleading farmers. Now the two are speaking in one voice against the ordinances.
What explains the Akalis’ opposition?
Peasantry forms the backbone of the Akali Dal vote-bank in Punjab. Earlier this week, Sukhbir Badal said, “Every Akali is a farmer, and every farmer is an Akali.”
Farmers unions across the state have sunk their political differences to unite against the ordinances. Villagers in the Malwa belt have warned they will not let any leader who supports the ordinances enter their villages.
The 100-year-old party, which had its poorest ever showing in the 2017 Assembly elections with a mere 15 seats out of 117, cannot risk alienating its core constituency. Political analysts say it’s a question of survival for the party that enjoyed two successive terms from 2007 before the 2017 rout. The SAD-BJP alliance secured only 15% of the seats while the Congress recorded its most emphatic win since 1957.
Dr Parmod Kumar from the Institute of Development Communication, a think tank, said the farmers’ agitation has come as godsend for the Akalis. “They were in the wilderness and no one thought they would ever oppose the BJP. This agitation has given them a new lease of life. Their outright support for the farmers could also help them dilute the anger against incidents of sacrilege during the Akali tenure in 2015.”
What are the stakes involved?
Farmers fear they will no longer get paid at MSP, while commission agents fear they will lose their commission. According to a Punjab Agricultural University study, there are over 12 lakh farming families in Punjab and 28,000 registered commission agents.
A large part of the state’s economy rests on funds infused by central procurement agencies such as Food Corporation of India (FCI). The lion’s share of wheat and rice grown in Punjab is procured by or for FCI. In the 2019-2020 rabi marketing season, Punjab supplied 129.1 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of the 341.3 LMT wheat procured for the central pool. In 2018-19, it contributed 113.3 LMT of rice to the total 443.3 LMT in the central pool.
Now, protesters fear the FCI will no longer be able to procure from the state mandis, which will rob the iddleman/commission agent/arhatiya of his 2.5% commission. The state itself will lose the 6% commission it used to charge on the procurement agency.
“The ordinances that allow farmers to sell their produce in the open market deal a blow to the farmers, mainly Jats, the commission agents, who are largely urban Hindus, and landless labourers,” said Parmod Kumar.
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How does it impact the BJP and its ties with the Akali Dal?
It will strain the ties that have been frayed for a while amid speculations that BJP could be flirting with a breakaway Akali group led by Rajya Sabha MP SS Dhindsa, whom the Modi Government had awarded Padma Bhushan. Besides, with Sukhbir is yet to demonstrate the persuasive powers of his father and five-time CM Parkash S Badal, who held the alliance together through thick and thin.
But the bills will also hurt BJP’s largely urban vote bank, which includes the commission agents, and render it a weaker partner in the alliance. It will no longer be able to defend its demand for a larger share of assembly seats from the existing 23.
On the other hand, the whip by the Akali Dal against its own alliance government could rile BJP at the Centre. Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist at Panjab University, said, “Every Cabinet member is bound by the Cabinet decision. Harsimrat’s resignation was inevitable as a vote against the bills would have violated Article 75.”
However, Kumar doesn’t see any immediate threat to the alliance from BJP. “It is facing a tough election, then it is all too aware that Punjab is a border state with its attendant challenges.”
Is it the first time the Akali Dal has distanced itself from an NDA decision?
In January, the Akalis had supported a resolution in the Punjab Assembly against the central Citizenship (Amendment) Act, after having voted in its favour in Parliament. Later, the party decided against fighting the Delhi Assembly elections over its differences with BJP on this issue.
Earlier this week in Parliament, Sukhbir Badal objected to non-inclusion of Punjabi in the new languages Bill for the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, saying it was a language spoken by locals as far back as the Khalsa Raj.
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