For now, the farmers’ protests in Punjab against the Centre’s three farm laws are bringing together, despite their different and often conflicting interests, sections of big and small farmers, landless agricultural labourers and commission agents. It’s a moment of unity, too, for Punjab’s notoriously fragmented farm unions.
The agitation is rippling outside the farm sector — joining, for instance, the theatre group in Amritsar, to the trader in the city’s famed wholesale cloth market. A play written in the early 1950s is seeing a revival today, says Kewal Dhaliwal, who runs Manch Rangmanch in Amritsar which has been performing at the protest sites.
In Joginder Baharla’s “Harian Saunnian”, Punjab’s two main crops, “Harian” and “Saunnian” (personification of rice and wheat), talk to the farmer, ask him why he remains poor even though he works so hard. “During performances now, audiences sing along with the chorus, ‘saade khet, saade khet (our fields, ours!)’”, says Dhaliwal.
And in the city’s Tahli Sahib Bazaar, cloth merchant Ajay Kumar Arora says: “I belong to a family of businessmen but about 70 per cent of my customers are from the villages. If they get good money for the crop, they buy more…”
But one set of actors is conspicuously left out, and left behind — Punjab’s political parties.
Seen to have awakened late to the agitation, accused of speaking in many voices, they are being turned away from the protest sites and villages, forced into the role of cheerleaders, left to mount parallel protests, like the Congress’s Punjab MPs at Jantar Mantar. Or engage, like Arvind Kejriwal and Amarinder Singh, in Twitter spats.
Going ahead, this marginalisation of the political player has implications for the future of the state and the political party. All parties will have to address the disillusion, to win back the people’s trust.
In the immediate term, as the protests continue, it could mean that the political party will have little or no say in a crucial calculation that will decide the timing and content of the resolution: When do the costs of the mobilisation begin to outweigh the investments being made in it?
As the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP, of course, is on the other side of the fence. With the Shiromani Akali Dal exiting the NDA over the farm laws, the BJP is on its own again in a state that resisted the Modi sweep in 2014 and again in 2019.
But its current isolation in the state is made of more than just that. In its longstanding alliance with the SAD, there was a more or less tidy division of political labour — the BJP focused on the urban Hindu areas, while Akalis drew their strength primarily from the Sikh peasantry.
The split with the SAD means, therefore, that the urban-centric BJP looks unable to bridge the communication gulf with the protesting farmers camping at Delhi’s borders or in the villages.
As it searches for conspiracies and Others, the BJP also looks like a party in sullen denial.
In Chandigarh, former MP and member of the BJP national executive, Satya Pal Jain, talks of “a lobby, anti-BJP and anti-Modi”. “They did prachar (publicity), like they did against the CAA — aapki zameen chali jaayegi, the corporates will take away your land… this propaganda, started by the AAP and a hardliner section of Sikhs, went down below. Captain Amarinder Singh cashed in on it to corner both the SAD and the BJP in one stroke. Then came the SAD somersault”. The BJP, he says, feels “let down” by the SAD.
To this cast of characters, which also includes “Leftist” kisan union leaders, Jain adds the commission agent or arhtiya, “who feels most adversely affected by the new laws”.
But the BJP, says Jain, sees in this crisis a new opportunity. “This will be ultimately sorted out by the Centre, and the credit will go to the party.” It will give it an opportunity to expand its base on its own in Punjab, as it did in Haryana and Himachal, and “a new experiment will start,” says Jain.
Senior Akali leader and former Punjab education minister Daljit Singh Cheema contests the BJP claim that the SAD had belated second thoughts. His party began objecting ever since the introduction of the ordinances, he says — met farm unions, conveyed the feedback to the Modi government, asked for a select committee.
Now, a cornered SAD, which posted its poorest ever tally in the 2017 assembly elections, winning only 15 seats out of 117, is falling back on its traditional anti-Centre political tack and rhetoric — only this time it is not deployed against old enemy Congress but newly divorced partner BJP.
“What was the need to do this (bring the laws),” Cheema asks and answers his own question: “One after another, there is encroachment by the Centre on state powers. The federal system is being undermined, the reason is arrogance”.
The second term of the NDA has been “very different”, but this “violation of the constitutional spirit” was visible earlier too, he says — and cites centrally sponsored schemes, centralisation of powers in GST, implementation of laws like UAPA. These are “Emergency waale halaat (Emergency-like circumstances)”, it’s the same “Indira Gandhi policy”.
Like the others, the Congress, too, seems to have been caught off-guard. Yet its bind is a special one: It is in power in the state, and yet not powerful on the issue roiling it currently — it holds few or no cards in the face-off between the Centre and the farmers of Punjab.
“Procurement in this state is done like clockwork. If you went up in a chopper, you would see Punjab fields all yellow, and after 10-12 days, there would be no grain standing. It is a well-oiled machinery”, says Sunil Jakhar, president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee.
There are corruptions and inefficiencies in the FCI, he says, and as leader of the Opposition, he had taken his concerns
to the CAG. “But you need to correct, not dismantle”, he says. The government’s “promotion of corporates” is having an unintended effect, he says: “You have now painted them as big villains”.
If Congress handwringing highlights the predicament of the political mainstream in Punjab, the sidelining of the Aam Aadmi Party underlines the taming of the alternative.
Only three years ago, in 2017, the AAP had succeeded in turning the two-cornered Punjab contest into a triangular one on an anti-establishment platform, emerging as the second largest party in its debut assembly election in the state. Now it stands alongside the mainstream parties — on the outside of the farmers’ protests, looking in.
Says Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly AAP’s Harpal Singh Cheema: “This started with the farm unions, then we spoke up.”
When Cheema says, “we supported the kisan jathebandiyan (farmer mobilisations), jab unhone kiya toh hamne kiya” — it is both a factual description of the sequence of events and an inadvertent admission of the AAP’s failure to seize the moment, or the movement.
Cheema reacts to the BJP’s insinuation of an “AAP-Khalistani lobby”: “In the last assembly election, too, the Congress called us Khalistani and the BJP called us Urban Naxals. The agencies are with them, why don’t they jail us?”
But in this moment, the AAP’s real challenge may lie in what he says next: At the sites of the protests, “we have to sit in the back, we can’t even sit in the front, they don’t let us speak”.
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