Updated: February 7, 2021 1:13:48 pm
Its seven days to the Punjab civic polls, and senior BJP Jalandhar leader Ramesh Sharma is in a quandary. “They follow us everywhere,” he says.
In 2015, the then ruling Akali-Dal BJP combine had swept the civic polls, with the BJP outperforming its senior partner. This time, the BJP has not been able to find candidates for two-thirds of the seats, nor to campaign in the rest. As the protesters at Delhi’s borders press on, Punjab BJP leaders are nervously watching the “pakka dharnas” outside homes of more than 30 of them — unceasing for four months, continuing day and night, drawing people from up to 40 km away, organised by farm unions, under tents that can hold 200 people. The banners at the sites demand that the “black” farm laws be repealed, ask why farmers are being called terrorists, and exhort: ‘Aao saare Dilli chaliye (Let’s all go to Delhi)’.
The BJP has hardly stirred out for campaigning, for fear of protesters surrounding their venues. Many BJP leaders have quit — over 20 of them in January alone — including the only Sikh face in the party’s core committee in the state, Malwinder Singh Kang. Partymen have removed the BJP flag from their vehicles, and check farmers’ protest plans before leaving homes, says a senior BJP leader.
A plan for Tiranga Yatras across Punjab to highlight the January 26 violence in Delhi — which briefly gave the government hope of putting the farm leaders on the backfoot — stands scuppered.
“Protesters gherao us whenever they see us,” says Sharma, former BJP district president of Jalandhar and in-charge of the civic elections at Sunam in district Sangrur, blaming the Congress. In Sunam itself, pakka dharnas are on outside the residences of BJP district president (rural) Rishipal Khera and party state executive member Vinod Gupta.
To be held on February 14, the civic polls to 2,302 seats in eight municipal corporations and 109 municipal councils/nagar panchayats will be the first reflection of the anger against the BJP over the new farm laws. Long-time ally Akali Dal is not around to fend it off, having split from the BJP over the laws. Moreover, the Akali Dal too is feeling the heat, despite its attempts to distance itself from the laws. People are also angry with the ruling Congress for going ahead with the polls when farmers are away protesting. The Aam Aadmi Party, the main opposition party in Punjab, carries little punch following desertions.
Among senior BJP leaders, Punjab state president Ashwani Sharma has been facing protests since October (he has truncated public appearances now). Harjit Singh Grewal, the biggest Sikh face in the Punjab BJP after Kang quit, who is part of the party panel talking to farmers, is facing a “social boycott” since mid-December after he called farmers “urban Naxals”.
Says a Dhanaula villager, Mohinder Singh, “No one will take Grewal’s village land on contract for farming. We challenge him to contest an election even to the Municipal Council.”
On January 18, on a call by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, that is spearheading the farmers’ protest at Delhi borders, mega rallies were held at Dhanaula village, as well as the Kathera village in Fazilka of Surjit Kumar Jyani, the chairman of the eight-member BJP panel talking to farmers.
Grewal and Jyani have spent most of their time since November 28 in Delhi, after they were summoned by Home Minister Amit Shah to coordinate with the unions. On January 5, they met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after which Jyani called the farmer agitation “leaderless” and said Modi had asked for one name whom they all trusted.
In Rampura Phul area of Bathinda, a pakka dharna outside the factory of Makhan Jindal, a BJP state executive committee member, on since mid-October, was lifted on January 10 only after Jindal resigned from the party.
Kang tells The Sunday Express, “I quit when I saw the party was not serious about the issue. In the core committee meetings, the BJP leaders were not concerned. They were not even aware how many farmer unions were there in Punjab, what was their background.”
At Tej Enclave in Patiala, Jaswinder Singh, the block president of the BKU (Ugrahan), tells protesters assembled outside senior BJP leader Yogesh Khatri’s home that since the party is “shameless enough to contest the civic polls when making farmers sit out in the cold near Delhi”, “it’s our duty to ensure its leaders too remain at home by defeating them”.
Around 240 km away, Parkash Singh of the Kirti Kisan Union, tells protesters at Amritsar’s Canadi Avenue, outside the house of Rajya Sabha MP Shwait Malik, that the government was part of the “larger conspiracy” behind the Red Fort incident to discredit the farmers.
Parkash has been coming to the dharna daily for four months, from his village Thothian, around 40 km away. Jaswinder has been present at the site for 45 days despite a fractured arm. The locals have donated beddings and other essentials. Gurdwaras supply food. Even some BJP activists are serving meals on the side, the protesters say.
At Yogesh Khatri’s house in Patiala, the pakka dharna began around a fortnight ago. “We have been able to get only 11 candidates against 21 seats in the Samana Municipal Council and 10 against 17 seats in the Nabha council. At several places, our leaders are not contesting on party symbol,” Khatri says.
Careful not to provoke the farmers, he adds, “They have all the right to protest but they are getting too personal.”
Among the BJP leaders contesting as an Independent is Bathinda BJP chief Vinod Binta. He says he had no choice; “protesters are not allowing us to hold election meetings”.
The BJP’s attempts at reconciliation have failed. Says Harjit Singh Jitha of the Punjab Kisan Sangharsh Committee, “Shwait Malik met us once. But our demand is that the laws be cancelled… On that, he was helpless.”
Protesters have also vented anger on the Akali Dal, with slogans forcing its chief Sukhbir Badal to abandon a speech on farm laws at the Fatehgarh Sahib gurdwara on December 28. He had to be escorted out via the back gate.
Mystery surrounds the February 3 attack on Sukhbir’s vehicle in his constituency Fazilka, while he was accompanying a party candidate for filing of nomination for the civic polls. While the party blamed the Congress, another FIR names the Akali Dal’s own men.
Sukhbir and wife Harsimrat Badal repeatedly stress that they were the only NDA partners to have opposed the farm laws, and that they gave up a ministerial post and quit the alliance on the issue. Sukhbir told The Sunday Express he had warned the BJP not to go ahead with the farm laws “not once, but many times”. Denying that the farmer anger left them with no choice, the Akali leader says, “We are a 100-year-old party, we do not work under compulsions. We represent farmers and it is our duty to work for their welfare.”
The Congress, led by an aggressive Amarinder Singh, sees a chance to win back the Hindu vote that shifted to the BJP in Punjab, between the 2017 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. With the BJP blaming the Congress for the protests, Punjab PCC chief Sunil Jakhar says farmers should give a befitting reply to the BJP “politically” and “democratically”. Defending the decision to hold the civic polls, Jakhar says, “Otherwise the BJP would have targeted the state saying polls were postponed due to law and order problems… The BJP has been calling farmers Khalistanis and Maoists. It would have exploited the situation. We do not want to give the Centre a chance to make a J&K in Punjab.”
In private, BJP leaders claim the Congress’s hopes of a big win are misplaced, contending that BJP leaders contesting as Independents are its own men. They also claim urban voters are with the party, especially in Hoshiarpur, Pathankot, Abohar and Bathinda districts.
Among those keeping a close vigil outside BJP homes, especially after the January 26 violence, is the police. But ACP, North Amritsar, Sarabjit Singh doesn’t expect a repeat. “The farmers have not indulged in any violence in the past four months,” he says.
Haryana: ‘Watching who will be first to move out of home’
Sitting at his Chandigarh residence, a Haryana minister says it is a waiting game. “We are watching who will be the first to move out of home.”
Ever since protesting farmers held off 1,500 policemen, armed with teargas, to ensure Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s helicopter could not land in Karnal on January 10, the BJP’s plans of holding public meetings in support of the farm laws first went out of the window. Now, as anger mounts owing to the January 26 violence, party leaders are wary of leaving home, especially in districts where farmer agitation is the strongest.
It’s not just the ruling BJP that has been hemmed in. In a worse situation is its partner JJP and Deputy CM Dushyant Chautala — whose political relevance draws on great-grandfather Devi Lal Chautala’s legacy as one of India’s tallest farmer leaders. The farmers have announced they won’t allow any public meetings of BJP-JJP leaders.
The CM has had his Kaimla venue vandalised and his cavalcade forced back with black flags in Ambala; Chautala has had a temporary helipad in his constituency Jind uprooted to thwart his arrival; minister Kamlesh Dhanda has had her cavalcade chased in Kaithal; the BJP has had to cancel training sessions and a protest on the Satlej-Yamuna Link issue in Fatehabad as farmers called it a bid to divide them along Punjab and Haryana lines. Outside many villages, boards bar entry of BJP and JJP leaders.
Says Raj Kumar, a farmer from Jind district, “BJP, JJP leaders can come out only if they hide their identity, wearing masks.”
Former state BJP president Subhash Barala admits farmers are gripped with “fear”. But adds, “It has been nursed in their minds.”
Among the BJP leaders who have faced the brunt of the ire is Haryana Education Minister Kanwar Pal Gujjar. BKU leader Jasbir Singh Mamumajra says Gujjar “spoke too much against agitating farmers”.
Gujjar claims the protests on their own don’t affect him. “They are targeting me as I have been in favour of the laws. I don’t have a problem with black flags… How will democracy survive if there is no opposition? But opposition should be in a certain manner.”
BJP sources say they are counting on the fact that the next polls are in 2024, by when the farmer protests may be old news. However, the JJP can hardly bank on that alone. The other branch of Devi Lal’s family, represented by the INLD, scored a point recently when its lone MLA, Abhay Chautala, resigned in support of the farmers. With Dushyant having announced earlier that he would be “the first to resign” if he couldn’t get every farmer their MSP, Abhay says, “Those who used to talk of resigning citing the principles of Chaudhary Devi Lal are now forced to remain at home under security cover.”
Dushyant’s younger brother Digvijay, fielding questions for the JJP on the farm laws, has tried to contain the damage. On January 29, after Uttar Pradesh BKU leader Rakesh Tikait’s crying video from Delhi’s Ghazipur border spurred a fresh round of protests, Digvijay said, “Rakesh Tikait is son of the country’s great leader Baba Mahender Tikait. It is totally wrong to call him anti-national.”
While the Congress is hoping to regain lost ground in the state on the back of the farmer agitation, for now farmer leaders are keeping all parties out. Senior Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala faced hooting when he went to a protest venue in Kaithal district on December 8; while a video also went viral purportedly showing hooting for former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda at Delhi’s Tikri border. Son and MP Deepender Hooda denied this, adding, “This is a non-political agitation. The farmer is its captain and hero.”
Haryana farmer leaders claim inspiration from their Punjab counterparts, especially after the Red Fort violence. “It was a trap to puncture the agitation, but people soon realised what it was about,” says Balraj Goyat, 50, who attended the huge Kisan Mahapanchayat held in Jind on February 3.
Khap leader Tek Ram Kandela, seen as a BJP supporter, told the Mahapanchayat that the BJP was to blame for the Red Fort incident. “I am a farmer first,” he explains to The Sunday Express. “Then the member of a party.”
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