Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal prides himself for coming from a farming background and he has always worn this distinction on his sleeve. However, it is from this very sector that in the last two months the SAD-BJP government has faced some of its severest challenges.
For nearly a month now, the Punjab government has been in a fire-fighting mode trying to calm agitating farmers of the Malwa belt who have lost virtually 50 per cent of their cotton crop due to whitefly pest attacks. The chief minister’s family-dominated areas of Muktsar, Bathinda and Mansa districts have been some of the worst affected by the attack. Sensing an opportunity, the Opposition has been merciless in its offensive during the recent Vidhan Sabha session.
To add to the crisis, the state agriculture director, known for his proximity to the Badal family, was accused in a spurious pesticides scam and the government was forced to put him behind bars.
Even as the government held parleys with farmers sitting on dharnas and a `rail roko’ blockade for six days, farmers from other parts of the state were in distress because of the sudden fall in the purchase price of two particular varieties of Basmati rice. With paddy procurement under way the near 50 per cent drop in the rate of the Basmati has left farmers in the lurch.
The state government tried to win over the protesting farmers’ unions through back channel negotiations but those failed. However, the five-time chief minister still had some cards up his sleeve. In a clever move, the farmers’ agitation and the Basmati price fall were converted into a crisis of the agriculture sector in general and the Centre was also held responsible for the plight of the farmers in the state.
Badal spearheaded the move to rope in the union government and specifically referred to the need for the Centre to pay more attention to agriculture at the 113th birth anniversray function of Jai Prakash Narayan in New Delhi on Sunday in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi . At the state level, the CM has involved BJP leaders and ministers in the brain-storming sessions over the farming crises so that they can pressurize the central leadership to do more.
However, the crises have dented the pro-farmer image of the SAD. The pardon given by the Akal Takht to the controversial head of Dera Sacha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, came during the farmers’ unrest; it has also attracted considerable flak from the public as it is widely believed that the pardon had the blessings of the SAD top brass.
The PM’s comparison of Badal with Nelson Mandela on Sunday, may have become a source of mirth to his political opponents, but the CM is trying to use it to his advantage and ensure that it gives more sheen to his image as a leader of unparalleled eminence in Punjab. The boost from Modi came at the right time too: a resurgent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been holding rallies throughout the state including one one in the Badal bastion of Lambi – Badal’s assembly constituency.
The challenges have been serious and numerous but pushing 89 years, Badal still has a unique grasp over the state politics and is not known to be easily perturbed.
At the peak of the farmers’ agitation, he attended a function where he ruled out taking ‘sanyas’ from politics soon. In his typical chaste Punjabi he said, ‘Politics chhadni saukhi nayi. Ehda taste hee add hai”. Translated, it means, “Politics is not easy to quit. It has a great taste”. Clearly, he is gearing up for a battle in the 2017 assembly polls when he would be 90.
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