Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic downturn, and Chinese aggression at the border, the ruling BJP on Thursday suffered a setback with a minister from one of its traditional allies resigning over an issue related to the farm sector.
With the central government having completed a year, and the BJP gearing up for elections in a key state, two of its oldest allies have now exited the government. While Shiv Sena broke away from the BJP-led NDA soon after the Maharashtra elections late last year, SAD leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal quit the PM Narendra Modi-led government while her party continues to be part of the NDA.
Harsmirat, daughter-in-law of SAD patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, resigned as Minister for Food Processing Industries, saying that her party cannot support anti-farmer legislation. An undeterred Prime Minister Modi termed the three Bills as “historic agrarian reform Bills”.
Within an hour of the Bills being passed by Lok Sabha, Modi tweeted: “The passage of historic agrarian reform Bills in the Lok Sabha is an important moment for the farmers and agriculture sector of the country. These Bills will truly free the farmers from middlemen and obstacles.”
He added, “A lot of power is engaged in confusing the farmers. I assure my farmer brothers and sisters that the system of MSP and government procurement will remain. These Bills are really going to empower the farmers by giving them many more options.”
However, the resignation on Thursday would come as a setback to the BJP on multiple counts. Amid the intensifying economic issues, joblessness and tension at the LAC with China, SAD’s exit from the Union government would give the Opposition a fresh handle to mobilise forces against the BJP in the Bihar elections. The BJP would also have to fight the Opposition’s charges of “usurping” the states’ rights by pushing legislation that are within the ambit of their powers.
Opposition to the government’s move on farm Bills has come from states that are considered to be agriculture powerhouses that contribute significantly to the country’s food security. This at a time when the government has been highlighting the provision of free rations and food security amid the migrant workers’ crisis during the pandemic.
Until Thursday morning, BJP leaders were arguing that SAD’s difference of opinion over the farm Bills would not affect the government or ruling alliance. “We tried to persuade them, and they may vote against the Bill too. But it is fine. Even JD(U) – our Bihar ally – had a different opinion on issues like abrogation of Article 370 and CAA,” said a senior BJP leader. However, the JD(U) is not part of the central government.
Sources also pointed to the absence of a veteran leader like Arun Jaitley, who used to play a key role in keeping the Punjab partner with the BJP. Party leaders said that SAD continued to be part of the alliance despite reservations expressed by its ideological parent RSS due to Jaitley’s efforts.
Justifying its moves on the legislation front, the BJP argued that “contract farming” is encouraged by many states and it would provide “mechanism for improving linkages between farmers and markets through the active involvement of private sector”. They also pointed out that at least 19 states have already moved towards adoption of legislation that allows private market yards, and direct buying and selling. It was the UPA government that had initiated these reforms in the agriculture sector, they added.
“The Congress in its manifesto in 2019 mentioned that they will repeal the Agriculture Produce Market Committees Act and make trade in agriculture produce — including export and inter-state trade — free from all restrictions,” said a party leader.