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Behind farmer-govt trust deficit, misreading of protests

If the party was missing in action on the ground in Punjab, the government, too, didn’t pay much heed and took the farmers for granted.

Farmers at borders during protests against the new farm laws.

AS the farmers’ protests acquire a new dimension with the Supreme Court’s controversial intervention and one of the four members pulling out of the proposed resolution committee, the challenge, many in the party and government admit, is to address the deep trust deficit between the protesters and the government.

There are voices within who suggest that the government misread the signals on the ground in Punjab, indulged in name-calling that misfired, and brushed aside farmers’ concerns by attributing political and ideological motives to the protest.

Also Read |SC committee cracks, key member opts out saying he is with farmers

For six months between May 15, the day Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman first announced the government’s intention to enact the three farm laws, and mid-November, when farmer unions gave a Delhi Chalo call, the government and the party, a leader said, didn’t catch the discontentment brewing across Punjab.

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No sooner had the Ordinances been promulgated on June 5 than farmers in villages started protests, unions told them these three were ‘kaala kanoon’, the agitation spread to towns, groups of 50-100 shouted slogans outside the offices of SDMs (Sub-Divisional Magistrates) and District Collectors in tehsils and districts. BJP leaders in Punjab failed to counter this campaign.

Also Read |Record govt purchases of cotton, paddy from Punjab

“They should not have given up in the beginning itself. Local party leaders either locked themselves in or joined the protesters. We should have countered the arguments. Lekin, hum maidan chodkar bhaag gaye (We fled the battleground),” said a senior party leader and a Union Minister.

If the party was missing in action on the ground in Punjab, the government, too, didn’t pay much heed and took the farmers for granted.

Between June 5 and September 14, when the Bills were introduced in Parliament, of the 69 press releases issued by the Agriculture Ministry, only seven were related to the “landmark and historic decision”.

Also Read |Schools reopen in Punjab but many kids stay on at farm protest site

One reason, some in the BJP claim, the government was probably lulled into complacency with its ally Shiromani Akali Dal backing the Bill until August end. Indeed, Sukhbir Badal released Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar’s letter before the start of the Assembly session on August 28 which said procurement and MSP would continue and that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was misleading farmers.

Days before resigning from the Union Cabinet on September 17, Harsimrat Kaur, too, supported the pro-farmer ordinances terming them “pro-farmer.”

In Parliament, too, the government rammed through the Bills over the next five days, ignoring not just the Opposition who urged these be sent for Parliamentary scrutiny, but also parties such as AIADMK and BJD which had raised concerns. Its own ally SAD had warned that “the spark that has been lit in Punjab and Haryana… don’t allow it to turn into a fire”.

Given the groundswell of support for farmers in Punjab and the intensity of protests, the SAD eventually quit the NDA on September 17 and the farmers had started a rail roko blocking trains from passing through the state.

As this lingered, the top political leadership still believed this was “instigated” by the “usual suspects” of the anti-BJP coalition and underlined how these protests were blocking crucial supplies to troops in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. In fact, the Government even invoked the 1962 war against China to make this point.

Sources in the BJP now say the party may have been hasty in letting the SAD slip out of the NDA fold so easily. “As an ally, we may not have benefited much from them; they aren’t very popular in the state and they have dynasty issues but SAD’s exit gave the protests a fresh boost and created an impression of this being a Punjab vs BJP/Centre issue. Also, SAD giving up power gave credence to farmers’ suspicion these laws were harmful,” said another Union Minister, who did not wish to be named.

“So the message went out that even if Parkash Singh Badal was leaving the alliance, no one cared at the Centre…that has hurt us,” said a senior BJP leader.

At one stage, the ruling party and the government were “confused” over how to deal with the protests led by Sikh farmers – from showing sympathy to branding them as Maoists and Khalistanis.

It came a full circle with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s community outreach during his border visits and tributes at Gurdwara Rakab Ganj and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh calling them annadatas and regretting the use of labels like Khalistanis or Maoists. Ministers engaging with unions — Tomar, Piyush Goyal and Som Parkash — made it a point to strike a more conciliatory tone even in photo-ops.

“Rajnathji’s forceful rejection of what some of his party and ministerial colleagues’ attempts to brand the farmers itself was an indication of the confusion in the party. Not having a prominent Sikh face in the government team didn’t help either,” said a BJP MP.

The RSS is lalso earnt to have reservations with the government’s handling of the protests. During the recent three-day meeting in Ahmedabad, the Sangh leadership conveyed these “thoughts” to BJP president J P Nadda on the manner in which the Bills were brought in, said sources present in the meeting.

An outreach blitzkrieg of 100 press conferences and meetings with farmer groups launched in December, only proved to be too late – the “right thing at the wrong place and wrong time,” as a leader admitted.

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