The political parting of ways wasn’t foretold. The Shiromani Akali Dal (B) in Punjab has long prided itself on being a core member of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre and the alliance itself seemed shored up by a meeting of political interests and reciprocity. During the Lok Sabha elections last year, at rally after rally, SAD patriarch and five-time Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal sought votes for his party in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, in turn, had likened him to Nelson Mandela. On the three farm bills that have become the breaking point now, the murmurs of protest began in Punjab long before they were tabled in Parliament. But the groundswell of anger that became visible once it became certain that they would be passed without any amendments assuring the sale of produce at the minimum support price presented a challenge to the SAD-BJP. What the Modi government flaunts as the biggest farm reform in agriculture is being seen by many farmers as an impending invasion by corporates in the agrarian state. Organisations of both traders and middlemen that the bills seek to free the peasantry from, and of farmers, have come together to oppose the legislation.
The walkout by the SAD from the NDA brings to an end an alliance that has won four elections in the state — the Akalis had joined hands with the Jan Sangh in the 1960s — but it wasn’t a partnership driven by numbers alone. Though the BJP provided the Akalis a crucial opening in the urban areas dominated by traders, its vote share in the poll alliance averaged only around 7 per cent. More importantly, the partnership, in its best version, became a symbol of the syncretic culture of the state, an assertion of Punjabiyat, after a decade lost under the shadow of the guns. It helped the Akalis project themselves as more than a panthic party, and gave the BJP a foothold it couldn’t have on its own in a key northern state. At the Centre, alliance with the Akalis helped the BJP to address itself more credibly to victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. More generally, successful partnership with a “Sikh” party was helpful for the BJP in responding to the charge that it was inhospitable to, or intolerant of, the minorities.
The agitation against the farm legislation comes at a time when the SAD is on a weak footing in the state, having logged its worst ever performance in the 2017 assembly polls. Now, as the party prepares for a return to the kind of pro-peasant and anti-Centre plank that held up its politics in an earlier time, however, it will confront a changed politics — and a changing agriculture. The agriculture sector in the state of the Green Revolution is ripe for another big push. For a party which claims to speak for the farmers, finding the way forward will also mean stepping up to the necessity of reform that the farm legislation promises to deliver.
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