The Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party have been in alliance for 23 years but today, the long-standing partnership appears to be coming apart from the edges.
Differences have erupted between the two parties over three farm sector Bills that the BJP is intent on passing in Parliament. The passage of these Bills could hurt the Akalis' interests on their home turf, where farmers' bodies have vehemently opposed the legislations.
SAD leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal on Thursday said her decision to resign from the Union Cabinet to protest three farm sector Bills "symbolises my party's vision, its glorious legacy and its commitment to go to any extent to safeguard the interests of farmers". "I am proud that today I am able in my humble way to take that legacy forward, she said.
In her four-page resignation letter addressed to the prime minister, she said, "In view of the decision of the government of India to go ahead with the Bill on the issue of marketing of agricultural produce without addressing and removing the apprehensions of farmers and decision of my party, Shiromani Akali Dal, not to be a part of anything that goes against the interest of farmers, I find it impossible to continue to perform my duties as a minister in the union council of ministers."
The Bills seek to deregulate the sale of agricultural produce to ensure better prices for the farmers. But many farm organisations and Opposition parties say they are a step towards dismantling the minimum support price (MSP) regime.
The Lok Sabha on Thursday passed the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill. It has already passed Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. They will replace ordinances promulgated by the Union government.
SAD's shifting views on farm bills
SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal on Friday expressed regret over the BJP not taking into account its reservations against the bill. He said that it was very unfortunate that the BJP-led government did not take farmers on board on the three agriculture-related bills, asserting that his party had brought their apprehensions to its notice.
Sukhbir also slammed the Congress for not voting against the bills in Parliament, a reference to the walkout from the House by the Opposition party before the voting took place in Lok Sabha.
But this has not been his party's stance all along.
Just a month ago, when the current day bills were introduced as Ordinances because the Lok Sabha was not in session, Sukhbir didn't find them so disagreeable.
Sharing his correspondence with Union Agriculture Minister Narender Singh Tomar with the media, Sukhbir claimed that the three ordinances were not a threat to the Minimum Support Price system. He had said he received categorical clarification from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the MSP system will continue to be a priority.
"The state APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee) Act and institutions established under such statutes will continue to operate and are not affected in any way by these ordinances," Badal had said commenting on another key aspect which is now one of the primary grounds on which opposition is criticising the new legislation.
He had also slammed Congress for trying to 'mislead the farmers' about the ordinances.
Sukhbir was quoted as saying by The Indian Express that certain elements "pretending to be champions of farmers' had been busy misleading the farmers", claiming that these ordinances would put an end to the practice of government buying farmers crop at MSP.
"This written commitment by the Government of India is a slap on the faces of these conspirators and their masters in the Congress. These people have been active to become relevant at the cost of the farmers, and they had been engaged in vicious propaganda that procurement and MSP will stop," said Sukhbir.
Compare this to what Harsimrat had to say on Friday, a day after she quit the Cabinet over the issue.
"All this while, I was given the impression that since an Ordinance is only a temporary arrangement, my concerns and pleas would be addressed while legislating on the issue in the Parliament. But I write it with a very heavy heart that despite my persistent pleas as well as repeated efforts of my party, SAD, in this regard, the government has not taken the farmers on board," she said.
"The trust farmers place in us is sacred to us, she said," she said.
Kaur, who held the food processing industries portfolio, said, "I and my party are deeply pained that we were not able to persuade the government to refer the Bills governing the marketing of farmers produce to a select committee. She, however, expressed satisfaction that she was able to live up to the expectations of the people who have placed their complete trust in her."
Why are Badals so angry about farm sector Bills?
The issue hits too close to home for the Badals to ignore it any further. Agriculture is a dominant occupation in Punjab and the party had performed poorly in the last Assembly elections primarily because it lost the support of farmers. And Punjab is one of the states where the farmers' agitation against the Bills has gathered steam.
According to PTI, the state's agitating farmers had on Tuesday warned that any Punjab MP who supports the farm bills in Parliament will not be allowed to enter the villages as they blocked roads at many places as part of their state-wide protest.
Calling the bills "worse than coronavirus", Bhartiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) general secretary Harinder Singh Lakhowal said they would negatively affect farmers, arthiyas (commission agents) and farm labourers, if implemented.
Lakhowal said his outfit, along with 11 other farmers' organisations will go to any extent to force the government to rollback the bills.