Agri laws: Repeal ripples will go far beyond the farm in Punjab

The repeal of three contentious farm laws by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Gurpurb (the 552nd birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev) is imbued with huge symbolism for Punjab which was the epicentre of farmers’ protests for more than a year. 

The surprise announcement — a week before one of the most dogged stirs against agriculture reforms in the nation’s recent history was to enter its second year with a renewed intensity — is sure to impact the political dynamics in the poll-bound border state where the assembly election is slated for early next year. Here is how:

Reprieve for BJP

A closure on the agitation, sustained by a groundswell of sentiment and support in the countryside, comes as a major breather for the saffron party which was facing farmers’ ire on the ground in Punjab. 

The farm laws not only led to the rupture of its 24-year-old poll alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal which walked out of the National Democratic Alliance government last year, but also made it the prime target of the agitators’ wrath in rural Punjab. 

Now, the BJP is expected to leverage Modi’s well-timed gesture which came two days after the Centre reopening the Kartarpur corridor to Pakistan for Sikh pilgrims to regain the ground it lost in the Sikh constituency. 

But, a shrill politics over the agitation’s human toll of over 700 deaths will cast a shadow on the party’s outreach in the first election that it will be contesting in Punjab without its pre-poll ally Shiromani Akali Dal since 1996. 

BJP’s stakes are limited to urban areas but Modi’s course correction will help it test the waters in the countryside.

Congress ups the credit war

The ruling Congress in Punjab which has consistently opposed the farm laws and passed assembly resolutions rejecting the central legislation twice has been quick to credit the ‘anndata’ (farmers) for “forcing” the Modi government to relent. 

Taking a political high ground on the Centre’s climbdown sits well with the party’s electoral objectives: to live down anti-incumbency sentiment and garner a slice in the rural vote pie. 

Not surprisingly, the Channi government, having already announced a string of concessions to farmers and other sections of voters, will now make the roll-back a key plank of its poll pitch in the assembly sweepstakes. 

Of course, Aam Aadmi Party and Akalis will be competing with the Congress to milk the issue for all its worth.

New political equations on the cards

The repeal of the laws has opened possibilities of new political alignments and alliances in Punjab. 

It is a major relief for the Shiromani Akali Dal which was smarting under the double whammy of the break-up of its alliance with the BJP and a backlash from its core constituency among peasantry for having initially supported the Modi government’s ordinances on farm reforms before the Parliament stamped them as the laws. 

Desperate to be in poll reckoning, the Akalis had forged an alliance with the BSP leaving 20 of 117 assembly seats to the junior partner. But, the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab’s first Dalit chief minister negated SAD’s caste card through BSP. 

The Akalis can now hope to recover some of the political ground they lost in their traditional bastion of Sikh peasantry. But, the key question in Punjab now is: will the SAD and the BJP warm up to each other and again forge an alliance that once welded the Sikh and Hindu constituencies in an electorally formidable way? 

Not before the polls, say Punjab observers. Their reasons: one, the bitter overhang of agitation vis-à-vis BJP will not dissipate in the run-up to elections; two, Akali bete noire Capt Amarinder Singh has already cosied up to the saffron party; and, third, SAD has already moved on, firmed its alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and even announced seats. 

All this, however, doesn’t foreclose their post-election options in case of a hung assembly.

Clears the way for Capt-BJP Tango

The repeal of farm laws opens up the window for a poll tie-up between breakaway Congress leader and former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh who has floated a new party, Punjab Lok Congress, and hinted at seat-sharing with the BJP in case there is a resolution of the farm issues. 

Though his party is yet to take off, former two-time CM is counting on his political heft to woo the disgruntled Congress leaders and make a common cause with the BJP to dent the party he was pushed out of unceremoniously. 

“I look forward to working closely with the BJP-led Centre for development of kisani,” Amarinder said in his post-repeal reaction, revealing his gambit.

X-Factor of farm bodies

The 32 bodies comprising the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, most of them rooted in Punjab, will be in a triumphant mode over the repeal of farm laws. But, will they take the electoral plunge to cash in on their victory? 

So far, they have ruled out contesting polls. But, some of the SKM constituents, particularly the Rajewal faction of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, are known to harbour political ambitions. 

All political parties will try and co-opt the farm unions who, buoyed by the success of their tenacious agitation, will be an X-factor at the Punjab hustings.

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Jitendra Kumar

Jitendra Kumar Born on October 10, 1990 an Indian author and activist from Hathras in Uttar Pradesh.