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BJP Allies SAD and JJP Nudged to Look Homewards, Reconnect with Regional Issues as Farm Bills Lead to Protests

Farmers protest the three agriculture bills in Parliament in Amritsar, Punjab. (PTI)

Farmers protest the three agriculture bills in Parliament in Amritsar, Punjab. (PTI)

With anger among farmers of Haryana and Punjab -- the bases of Jannayak Janata Party and Shiromani Akali Dal -- clearly and rapidly rising over the contentious agricultural reform bills, the question before the parties is who will blink first.

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Suhas Munshi

With intense agitation by farmers over the past fortnight in Punjab and Haryana, two regional allies of the BJP in the states -- Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) -- are sensing the ground slip from under their feet. As a result, they have moved quickly to appear to be on the side of the farmers.

On Thursday evening, Akali Dal's lone Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the cabinet citing her disagreement with the three farm bills proposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Parliament, which have been the primary cause of anger among the farmers. In a tweet, following her resignation, Harsimrat Badal said that she was "Proud to stand with farmers as their daughter & sister".

In Haryana, BJP's ally JJP, headed by deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Singh Chautala, is also feeling the heat of the agitation. On Friday morning, Chautala held a meeting with Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar on the issue of protests over the three bills promulgated by the NDA government — The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 — and held another round of meeting with his party's top leaders. The JJP has 10 MLAs in the 90-seat Haryana assembly.

None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has tried to pacify the anger of the farmers. In his e-rally with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Friday, Modi said that "misinformation" was being spread about farmers not getting the right prices because of the three farm bills. People opposing the bills, he said, "are forgetting how aware the country's farmers are...Fake news is being spread that wheat and rice etc will not be procured by government agencies from farmers. This is an absolute lie, completely wrong and an attempt to deceive farmers," he said.

JJP shares many similarities with the Akali Dal in that their primary support base is the states' farmers. Both parties have also emerged stronger after pitching themselves as strong anti-Centre regional forces. While the Akali Dal has a history of rising on the shoulders of farmer agitations on issues of water and fertiliser supply, the JJP has pitched itself as a pro-farmer party with Dushyant Chautala campaigning atop tractors in recent assembly elections and repeatedly questioning the Centre's promise of doubling farmer income.

The fervour with which the protests are taking place seems only to suggest that the agitation will intensify in the coming days. Therefore, both these parties risk losing the support of the very people who voted them to power. Both the BJP allies have been feeling the brunt of farmer agitation, with farmer bodies having called for 'rail roko andolan' and shutdown in rural India over the next week.

On Friday, a 55-year-old farmer tried to kill himself in Badal's home village in Punjab by consuming poison. His condition is said to be critical. A Congress MLA in Punjab has reportedly resigned over the issue and former state cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu has also made his pro-farmer stance clear through a series of tweets.

With anger among farmers of these two states rising clearly, the question before the parties, say political analysts, was who will blink first.

"It is clearly advantage-Akali Dal. They made the move first realising that their primary vote base - the farmer - was angry. So they decided to reassert their regional party position and say that they won't play second fiddle to BJP anymore. In fact the signal that the Akalis have now given is that if their alliance has to stay then BJP has to follow the Akalis and not the other way round," said Pramod Kumar, director of the think tank Institute for Development and Communication (IDC).

Kumar goes a step further and says that for Akalis the rising farmer anger against BJP-promulgated bills came as a huge opportunity. "Since the early 60's, when Master Tara Singh was replaced with Fateh Singh, Akali Dal's main supporter has been the farmer and their main thrust has been on federalism. If they hadn't taken this step they would have been politically extinguished. They had no choice to take this decision. Akali Dal rose to power on the sentiment that the Centre should not dictate terms to the state. Now they cannot be seen to be shying away from that principle," said Kumar.

He added that Akalis are only following the principle that every successful regional party has followed - that you fight for local issues and keep the Centre's influence in check. The question now was whether the JJP will also follow Akali's suit.

Farmer leaders in Haryana feel that the JJP-BJP combine has no option but to come around on the issue of the farm bills. The agitation has intensified greatly here since the September 10, when farmers protesting in Kurukshetra were lathicharged by the police. On Friday, Deputy CM Dushyant Chautala's brother Digvijay Chautala, a senior JJP leader and leader of the party's youth wing, in a press conference came out strongly against the lathicharge on the farmers. Claiming to understand farmers' issues since he came from a farmer's family, Dushyant said that those responsible for ordering the lathicharge on the farmers will be punished and that the Deputy CM had no role to play in the incident.

Satyawan, the president of the Haryana-based farmers' body All India Kisan Khet Mazduur Sangathan, said that farmers were trying really hard over the past few weeks to get in touch with senior political leaders in the BJP to convince them that the bills were against their interests, but no one has paid attention.

"The people in power are now realising that the ground is slipping from beneath their feet. BJP thinks that since it has a brute majority in Parliament, it can do however it pleases. In the coming days, their government will see the power of our resistance. On September 20, farmers of the two states will commemorate 'Pratirodh Diwas' and on September 25, a pan-India rural shutdown has been called for," he said.

While protests are going on over several other farmers' issues in many other states, such as in UP and Rajasthan over non-payment of sugarcane dues, in Punjab and Haryana they have intensified because most of the farmers who are beneficiaries of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) come from these two states. There is a sentiment among farmers here that the three farm bills will corporatise the farm sector, reduce the procurement by states and not give them even the MSP for their produce.


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