With the farmers going on the warpath against the passage of the Agriculture Bills in Parliament, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) oldest ally, was left with virtually no option but to quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to secure its own political future in Punjab.
It became the third alliance partner after Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Shiv Sena to quit the alliance even as the Centre relentlessly went ahead to pass the contentious Bills in Parliament. The fears expressed by SAD that these legislations will “destroy” the agriculture sector in Punjab and that it was “anti-Punjab and in the real sense, against the farmers of the country” did not deter the BJP leadership.
Shiromani Akali Dal got one of the worst drubbings in the 2017 elections when Congress won 77 of the 117 seats in Punjab. SAD, which contested for 94 seats secured only 15, whereas in the 2012 elections, it had secured 56 of the 94 seats it contested.
The Akali Dal-BJP combination suffered after it had a sustained run for a decade, bucking the trend in Punjab that no single party continued for two terms.
The defeat of the alliance was firstly due to the fact that BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ card could not benefit it much in the Sikh heartland and the presence of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) made the contest triangular. The Akali Dal votes not only split but the share also dropped by as much as 10 per cent.
There was anti-incumbency plus disenchantment towards Akali Dal as it was unable to control the illicit drug trade from across the border and it was not also able to stem rampant unemployment and large scale farmer suicides.
Being the oldest alliance partner of BJP in the NDA and farmers consisting its major vote base in Punjab, SAD hoped it would get an opportunity to sufficiently tweak the agriculture reform Bills to take into account all the concerns of the farmers in Punjab.
The Akali Dal seems to have completely failed to assess the importance BJP was giving to the Agriculture Bills. It was a big-ticket item for the BJP with national and international ramifications.
Agriculture reforms were being given the same value as India’s economic reforms which transformed the country’s development scenario apart from aligning India with the global economy during the Congress regime.
The economic reform process was continued by successive regimes whether BJP or Congress.
Prime Minister Modi has been reiterating that agricultural reforms will eliminate middlemen and empower crores of Indian farmers to sell their produce wherever and to whoever they wish.
The BJP government is keen to sell it as a major revolution in the field of agriculture since Independence. Akali Dal’s main grouse is that it was not consulted before the Bills were brought into Parliament so that the concerns of Punjab farmers could be discussed.
Agriculture, one of the last protective bastions of the restrictive command and control economy of the licence and permit inspector Raj, which had not been touched by any of the previous governments in India since Independence was to be opened up with these forward-looking agriculture legislations.
For BJP and PM Modi this was a move which was going to transform the entire national economy and have an impact on the socio-political sphere. Besides, it would also become a milestone achievement of the BJP tenure under PM Modi.
Political parties are trying to assess the reaction of the farmers as spontaneous agitations have burst forth in many parts of north India particularly Punjab, Haryana and UP.
BJP strategists must look very carefully as to how much of it is genuine protest and how much of it is politically motivated. Definitely, they have to find out if there are any major drawbacks in the legislation itself and try to bring about correctives before the whole issue snowballs out of proportion.
There are calls for BJP leaders and supporters to quit the party on the Agriculture Bills issue.
With Congress spearheading the farmers’ agitation in Punjab and intensifying its attack on BJP-SAD, obviously, it became very difficult for SAD to completely absolve itself of any complicity in the matter while its own Minister continues to be part of the cabinet in the Central government.
Harsimrat Kaur Badal quit in protest when the Bill was passed clarifying that she had waited long enough hoping that farmers’ concerns would be heard. As it became more and more difficult for SAD to continue to remain BJP’s partner, it quit NDA.
For Congress, the whole issue seems to have come as a godsend to be able to rally up a huge charge against the Modi government. To play up any fears and misgivings of the farmers on the Bill and tarnish the image of the BJP as ‘suit –boot ki sarkar’ working against the interest of the poor farmers at the behest of corporate, industrialists and business interests.
One of the main issues is that of Minimum Support Price (MSP) which the farmers are scared may go if the Agriculture Bill is implemented, though there is no mention of MSP in the Bill.
Despite an assurance from Prime Minister Modi that MSP will remain, Congress and Opposition parties want the government to ensure and give a guarantee that nothing will be sold below the MSP. While the government is not ready to comply with their wishes, they are openly expressing their distrust of the government’s assurances.
In this kind of a politically volatile situation, Akali Dal naturally could not continue to be playing a second fiddle to BJP and sit tweedling its thumb at the Centre while Congress and other Opposition parties virtually took over whatever little space it had in Punjab farmer politics.
This may have been seen as the best time by SAD strategists to snap relations with BJP and re-build itself among the masses particularly among the farmers.
Farm leaders have been giving calls to people and farmers to cut ties with BJP following the Agriculture Bill.
It is being expected by the BJP that once the procurement season starts in October and farmers get the MSP, much of the agitation will fizzle out.
It’s still early days and the political turmoil is likely to continue till the Centre addresses the issues of all the agitating masses. With SAD moving into the ring, it would be interesting to see it in an adversary of its old ally, the BJP.