Farm laws’ repeal: BJP’s Punjab dream and a face saver

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement this morning that the Centre will repeal the three contentious farm laws — that have seen farmers’ protests all across, especially dramatic ones at the borders of the national capital — springs as much from shrewd political calculations as it does from the urgent need for a face saver.

With the farmers refusing to bend or break, the protests have continued for over one year. Commuters crossing into or out of the capital get the sense that the Modi government cannot be as strong as it claims if it cannot disperse bands of a few thousand protestors, peacefully camping outside the capital. The government and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s information machinery tried hard to market the farm laws as beneficial to farmers but the protestors maintained that it was a sinister design driven by crony capitalism.

Disinformation campaigns to paint the protestors as anti-national or even terrorists sprung up from time to time but it was hard to deny the images of camping farmers and their families organising free community meals for days at end, for the poor in the vicinity or even the policemen posted at the sites to quell the protests. Images of peaceful protestors being mowed down by a speeding cavalcade of big cars at Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh might have been the last nail in the coffin of the three farm laws. Though, the BJP government had started searching for an exit route long before the Lakhimpur Kheri killings.

Also, the BJP’s long-held desire to form a government in the small but important border state of Punjab has played a big role in the repeal of the farm laws. The timing of the announcement is of utmost importance, coming as it does on Gurpurab (the birthday of Guru Nanak) and the eve of the assembly elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in early 2022.

The BJP has no doubt been part of the state governments in Punjab, with its former ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), in the past but only an insignificant one. Local BJP leaders’ complaints to the central leadership over the indifference or even hostility of the SAD brass in the past were often dismissed because of the party’s regional dependence on its stronger ally. For the 117-member assembly, the BJP has only contested a fifth of the seats in past elections.

With its emergence as the grand new party at the national level, since 2014, the BJP finds it hard to digest that it holds little electoral and political relevance in a state where over 40 percent of the population is Hindu, and where elections and religion have always been intertwined.

Earlier this week, former Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh’s strategy team was already discussing possible seat sharing combinations with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Singh, who feels insulted by the Congress high command (read Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra) because of the manner in which he was made to step down as chief minister wants to teach the siblings and his bete noir, Navjot Singh Sidhu, a lesson. Punjab watchers say the anti-incumbency against Singh did merit a change. But the party brass turned the event of removing him into an installation ceremony for Sidhu. The significance of having appointed a Dalit chief minister in the state is being constantly undermined by Sidhu’s opposition from within to his own party’s government.

In Amarinder Singh, the BJP sees an ideal ally. The ageing war horse has displayed his ability to rally voters around a cause and win elections in the past and he won’t be politically active for long. Singh has been vocal on issues concerning defence, Pakistan and “nationalism”, more in line with the BJP’s position than his own erstwhile party, the Congress. The saffron party senses an opportunity as it hopes the former chief minister will be able to attract farmers over the repeal of the laws — making it the mainstay of his campaign — and it can woo a greater number of Hindus than it has been able to in the past, by focusing on the state’s 45 or so Hindu-majority seats. Seat sharing between the two sides will not be a cakewalk though because both see each other as limited-capability fighting forces. Nor will it be easy to win the voters’ trust.

With the repeal of the farm laws, the BJP also hopes to stem the decline in polarisation in western Uttar Pradesh. If the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 caused the farmers of the region to think of themselves as Hindu or Muslim first, the 2020 farm laws united them again as a farming community, to some extent. The political gains that accrued from 2013 not only helped the BJP to form the government in UP but also adjoining Haryana. With the repeal of the laws, the party is once again searching for the proverbial “aapda mein avsar (opportunity in adversity)”.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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