Updated: December 1, 2020 1:53:37 pm
As farmers protesting the Centre’s new farm laws gathered at Delhi’s doorstep, demanding that the government listen to their concerns, shrill sections of the BJP have rashly reached for an older playbook. Instead of beginning a dialogue with the farmers to address their anxieties, many in the ruling party in Haryana and at the Centre have sought to suggest that the agitating farmers, overwhelmingly from Punjab, are being instigated or misled, that they are mere puppets and pawns in a larger conspiracy sponsored by the Congress — or infiltrated by those whom Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar has called “unwanted elements” and others have not hesitated from describing as “Maoists” and “Khalistanis”. Name-calling or othering is an easy but unbecoming strategy for a ruling party when faced with popular dissent, at any time and in any context. It is especially unwise, however, when the BJP wields it in this moment, against the protesting farmers from Punjab. This is the state, after all, of a hard-won peace and stability, after a decade lost to turbulence and terrorism. In Punjab, all players and stakeholders must know, any attempt to play with the “Khalistani” label and spectre is fraught with peril.
The BJP needs to tread especially carefully also because it lost a crucial interlocutor after the breakup of its long alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal recently. The partnership with the SAD was a way for the BJP to gain a foothold and expand in a state dominated by the Congress and the regional party — but it also served a larger political purpose. After the insurgency of the 1980s, the coming together of the “Hindutva” and “panthic” parties became symbolic of the forging and revival of a syncretic culture, a Punjabiyat larger than the sum of the two state’s two main communities. If the SAD was still with the BJP, if the Modi ministry still had a SAD representative — it withdrew its minister and walked out of the alliance over the same farm laws that are at the heart of the current discontent — the Centre might have found it easier to communicate with a protest dominated by Sikh farmers from Punjab, the path to a dialogue arguably softened and eased by the social coalition brought together by the political pact.
Today, even as the BJP confronts angry farmers from Punjab bereft of a crucial Punjab ally, pressure may be building on the SAD to assume a more hardline stance in the current crisis. It has long defined itself as a party of the panth and of the peasantry. Now, it must negotiate, all over again, a separate space and identity. For both the BJP and its erstwhile ally, therefore, the days ahead will be challenging. They must be mindful of the stakes in remaining sober and getting it right — for farmers, for Punjab, and for the country.
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