With the BJP sealing its alliance with former Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh’s fledgling Punjab Lok Congress Party for the upcoming Punjab Assembly elections, the BJP, which had always played second fiddle to its former ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), is now looking forward to playing the role of a senior partner in its new coalition in the state.
The BJP is gearing up to negotiate with Capt Amarinder for the senior ally’s position in their partnership, aiming to contest more seats than his newly-floated party in the elections to the 117-member Punjab Assembly. The Akalis were the dominant partner in their erstwhile coalition, and they used to give the BJP barely two dozen seats for the Assembly polls. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP had contested 23 seats and won 3.
The public backlash in the aftermath of farmer agitation against the BJP-led Centre’s three agriculture laws had forced the Punjab BJP leaders to remain holed up in their homes in the face of their social and political boycott by protesters across the state. With the farm laws issue being resolved now, the BJP leaders, equipped with a fresh narrative, are stepping out and cross-crossing the state with a renewed urgency.
Punjab BJP president Ashwani Sharma said, “Our slogan is ‘Nawa Punjab Bhajpa de naal’ (New Punjab is with BJP). A wind of change is sweeping the state, which all of us can feel. This is a time for kranti (revolution), to write a new history. After what PM Modi ji has done, people see their future in us.”
He was referring to PM Modi’s last month move to announce the rolling back of the three farm laws, followed by their repeal in Parliament, which led to the end of farmers’ year-long protest on Delhi’s borders over a week ago.
Capt Amarinder, who quit the Congress last month after being ousted by the party as the CM, had publicly maintained that he would join hands with the BJP if the Narendra Modi government concedes the agitating farmers’ demand for repealing the agriculture laws, which found widespread resonance among the people of Punjab.
BJP general secretary in charge of Punjab Dushyant Gautam also sounds optimistic about the party’s prospects in the Assembly elections due early next year. “We are a party of farmers and will always remain a party of farmers. Our government has introduced several schemes for farmers such as Kisan Credit Card, Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana etc. Even during Kisan Aandolan (farmer agitation against agri laws) we never stopped caring about them. We introduced a direct benefit transfer scheme to pay farmers despite the resistance by SAD, Congress and AAP, ” he said.
The BJP’s Punjab unit, which has traditionally been associated with urban Hindu traders, is now seeking to broad-base its appeal in the run-up to the polls, as reflected in its campaign pamphlets in Punjabi, issued recently by the central party leadership.
The pamphlet, featuring a picture of PM Modi paying obeisance at a gurdwara, lists various steps the BJP government has taken for the welfare of the Sikh community. It claims measures ranging from the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor to justice for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots victims, to removal of the GST from langars, to efforts to rehabilitate the Sikhs from Afghanistan and bring back the holy Guru Granth Sahib from that country. It also mentions that the BJP had organised special programmes on Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th Prakash Purab Utsav and Guru Gobind Singh’s 350th Prakash Purab.
The BJP has also prepared similar publicity material highlighting its work for Dalits in order to reach out to the Scheduled Caste community.
Subhash Sharma, state BJP general secretary, said such pamphlets were part of the efforts to “correct the misconceptions” about the party in Punjab. “BJP is a national party. It is a wrong narrative that we represent just a particular segment of society or urban people. When we were in alliance with the SAD, we used to contest only on 23 seats which had more urban and Hindu voters because they wanted it that way. Now we will widen our ambit.”
He claimed that 8,000 new members had joined the party in the last six months and that 500 of them had done so after the repeal of the farm laws. “Many of them are Sikhs, we represent all communities.”
The recent induction of ex-prominent Akali face Manjinder Singh Sirsa, a known pro-farmer leader, is part of the BJP’s bid to win over farmers and Sikhs in the state ahead of the polls.
Punjab BJP Kisan Morcha president Bikramjeet Singh Cheema said, “We are actively visiting villages. There is no resistance from anyone anymore. We were always with them. Many new faces have joined the BJP, with many more likely to join in the coming days as well. Many Sikh faces will now be seen in the party. ”
The saffron party is also holding talks with former Akali leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, who now heads SAD (Sanyukt), for an electoral tie-up, hoping its alliance with Capt Amarinder and Dhindsa would also enable it to project its inclusive image ahead of polls.
Says Subhash Sharma, “We represent all Punjabis,” going on to add, “Our leaders have already held meetings in all 117 constituencies of Punjab. Now we are planning to start public outreach programmes in the coming days. We had no major issues with farmers. The issues surrounding farm laws has been resolved.”
The BJP is now also treading cautiously on the sacrilege issue. Soon after a youth was beaten to death Saturday at the Golden Temple in Amritsar after being accused of an alleged sacrilege bid there, Sirsa strongly condemned the “unfortunate and painful sacrilege incident at Sri Darbar Sahib”. He said he has taken it up with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who, he added, was saddened by the incident and assured the Centre’s full cooperation in “exposing any conspiracy behind this beadbi (sacrilege)”.
In his comment, Ashwani Sharma said, “We condemn the sacrilege incident at the holy Darbar Sahib..In Punjab such incidents have been happening for the past few years at various places. It is showing complete failure of law and order of the ruling Congress government. Even the government has failed to provide punishment to the culprits of beadbi incident which had happened in 2015.”
It’s another matter that the 2015 sacrilege incident involving torn pages of Guru Granth Sahib — which were found on 12 October 2015 in the streets of Bargari village of Kotkapura constituency in Faridkot district, which led to massive public protests and police firing — had occurred when the SAD-BJP government was in power. The issue had snowballed into a major political crisis for the Akali-BJP government, whose ramifications continue to make waves in the state politics.
The Punjab BJP leaders are preparing a database of beneficiaries of various Central schemes in the state, which include PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana and Ujjwala Yojana.
“There is a crop insurance scheme as well for farmers, but the Punjab government never implemented it. So we will guide the farmers on its benefits and how they can avail it and not worry about their crops in the future,” Cheema said.
Several BJP leaders have already hit the ground and joined the campaign trail in rural areas of Punjab. Subodh Verma, a BJP leader from Fazilka, said, “I am interacting with people in the Balluana area and going to villages on a daily basis.
Similarly, a former minister Surjit Kumar Jayani is busy meeting people in Fazilka villages, especially in hamlets close to the India-Pakistan border. Jayani had faced farmers’ dharna (sit-in protest) outside his house in Fazilka’s Katthera village for months. Now, the dharna has been lifted.