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Farm Laws Repeal May Not Change Punjab Poll Equations, Unless One Thing Happens

The three main parties – the Congress, AAP & SAD – are still where they were. But there can be one game-changer.

Updated
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Several senior BJP leaders, including former minister Manish Grover, and Rohtak Mayor Manmohan Goyal were on Friday, 5 November, kept hostage by protesting farmers at a temple in Kaloi village in Haryana's Rohtak.</p></div>
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The protests against the Narendra Modi government's farm laws began in Punjab months before people in many other parts of India had even heard of the issue. The move to march towards Delhi and camp at the national capital's borders came from Punjab. A vast majority of the 700-plus farmers who died during the course of the protest are also from Punjab.

The farm laws brought an end to the 23-year-old alliance between the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The protests also intensified the desire for change in Punjab and may have inadvertently added to the anger against Amarinder Singh, which eventually led to him being replaced as chief minister by Charanjit Channi.

But despite the far reaching consequences of the farmers' movement, the repeal of the farm laws by the Modi government last week may not end up altering political equations in poll-bound Punjab too much. Unless one thing happens, which we will come to later.

But first, there are three reasons why the repeal may not alter poll equations in Punjab.

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1. NOTHING MUCH TO DIFFERENTIATE THE MAIN PLAYERS ON FARM LAWS

A major reason why the repeal may not drastically change equations in Punjab is because the three biggest political parties – the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the SAD – are broadly on the same page in opposing the laws.

While the Congress and AAP had been opposing the laws from the beginning, the SAD initially favoured them by virtue of being in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) but later made up for it by not just opposing but by walking out of the government at the Centre.

Therefore, even if anyone wants to vote with the farm laws as the main issue, there wouldn't be much to choose from between the three parties.

For an issue to change political outcomes, it is necessary that parties stand differentiated on it. That's not the case on the farm laws.

In the end, therefore, people may end up voting based on other considerations such as local candidate, popularity or unpopularity of the chief minister, promises fulfilled or broken, the sacrilege issue, unemployment, inflation etc.

2. FARM LAWS WERE THE BIGGER BATTLE

For many in Punjab, the farm laws were the bigger battle and not the elections. For Punjab's farmers, their livelihood was at stake. Elections were secondary.

The farm unions had even told parties not to start their campaign as it would divert energy and attention from the 'larger cause' – the farmers' protest.

This may continue to be the case with the farm unions demanding a constitutional guarantee on minimum support prices and action in the case of the Lakhimpur Kheri deaths.

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3. PARTIES ARE STILL WHERE THEY WERE BEFORE THE REPEAL

The repeal of the farm laws doesn't change anything for three main parties – the Congress, AAP, and Akali Dal. They continue to face the problems they were facing before the repeal. The Congress is still trying to firefight between CM Charanjit Channi and Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) President Navjot Sidhu.

The AAP continues to grapple with the leadership question and allegations that it is being run from Delhi. It is also facing defections, with several of its MLAs quitting and joining the Congress.

The Akali Dal's problems are same as what they were earlier – the party is facing a serious crisis of credibility with a big chunk of voters unwilling to give them another chance.

The allegations surrounding the 2015 sacrilege incident and the subsequent firing on protesters have harmed SAD's appeal immensely.

AT MOST, THERE MAY BE SOME CHANGE FOR THE BJP AND CAPTAIN

Now, the BJP would be mistaken if it believes that the repeal would suddenly revive its prospects in Punjab. That won't happen. The party was already unpopular in Punjab and the farm laws intensified it manifold.

But the party may now be able to conduct political meetings and carry out its campaign, which it was being prevented from by the protesting farmers.

The repeal of the farm laws has also opened up space for Captain Amarinder Singh and the BJP to form an alliance. Had the laws not been repealed, Captain may have been forced to avoid the BJP. But now that the laws are going, the possibility of an alliance is there.

The Captain is very keen on the alliance, but it is not clear if the BJP reciprocates this sentiment.

The problem is that outside of Patiala, Captain doesn't have a very strong base. And his lacklustre performance as CM continues to harm his appeal.

The only support base that Captain still has to some extent is the same as the BJP's base – urban Hindu voters. The BJP would ideally have liked an ally who adds to their base like the Akalis did, not duplicate it.

In either case, the BJP will remain a marginal player in the Punjab election with or without Captain.

Its best case scenario would be if the Congress and AAP are both contained and the SAD emerges as the single largest party with BJP as the kingmaker. This is not a very likely scenario as things stand today.

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THIS IS THE SPACE TO WATCH OUT FOR

The repeal of the farm laws could be a game changer if the farm unions or at least some of the prominent leaders either join an existing party or form their own party. There has been speculation that the Aam Aadmi Party has been trying to convince Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Balbir Singh Rajewal to be its CM candidate.

Rajewal, 77, is among the senior-most leaders of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) and one of the most prominent faces of the farmers' protest from Punjab.

However, Rajewal has denied that any such offer has been made to him.

In an interview to ABP News this weekend, Rajewal said, "There has been no such communication. Even I've heard this rumour floating in the market".

However, Rajewal didn't explicitly deny the possibility of a political plunge.

"There has been no such decision. Our main priority is Morcha Fateh (victory of the farmers' protest)," he said.

"Once that is achieved, the farmers' organisations from Punjab will get together and decide the future course of action," he added.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Kisan Union leader Balbir Singh Rajewal.</p></div>

Kisan Union leader Balbir Singh Rajewal.

(File Photo)

Since Rajewal has denied any communication with the AAP but not ruled out the possibility of a plunge in politics, it gives the indication that some of the Kisan Unions forming their own party could also be one of the proposals being considered.

This may be an easier proposal for many of the unions to rally behind than joining an already existing party. There's no doubt that if some of prominent farm unions form their own party or join an existing one, it would consolidate a lot of support in rural Punjab, especially Malwa.

There may still be issues though. The uUnion with the biggest network – Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) led by Joginder Singh Ugrahan – has traditionally been politically neutral but allowed its members to join one party or the other.

Siding completely with one party or forming one's own party may mean going against its approach that has been been rather successful till now.

Then there are other leaders like Ruldu Singh Mansa, who is already associated with CPI-ML.

The other problem is a tactical one. The unions' had legitimacy as leaders of the protest because they weren't associated with any political party and stood only for protecting farmers' interests.

If in future the Modi government brings back the farm laws and the Kisan Union leaders are part of an already existing party or their own party, it would be much easier for the government to dismiss their demands as being partisan rather than an expression of the will of farmers.

A lot would now depend on how the Centre responds to the farm unions demand of an MSP guarantee. If the remaining of the unions demands are met, then a political plunge cannot be ruled out.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Published: 
Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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