Shiromani Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur has resigned as Union Minister for Food Processing, to protest against the agricultural Bills pushed through by the Narendra Modi government. Her resignation has been accepted by President Ram Nath Kovind.
The Bills have sparked widespread protests from farmers, especially in Punjab and Haryana. The biggest fear for farmers is that the Bills are a step towards doing away with the Minimum Support Price.
Harsimrat Kaur’s resignation came as a surprise as the Akalis had initially defended the Centre’s ordinances.
So three questions are important here:
- Why did Akalis change their stand?
- Will quitting NDA be the next step?
- Will this alter political equations in the run-up to the Punjab polls due in February 2022?
U-Turn By Akali Dal
Less than a month ago, Akali Dal working president Sukhbir Badal had accused the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party of misleading farmers that the ordinances will do away with the MSP. He had even made public a letter by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar claiming that MSP won’t be touched.
So what changed?
Protests Gain Traction
But protests by farm unions intensified in Punjab over the past few weeks. Several villages even issued ultimatums that they won’t allow the entry of any leader whose party supported the Bills.
The farmers’ protests gained support from others sections of Punjabi society as well. Even celebrities like actor-singer Diljit Dosanjh openly came out in favour of the protesting farmers and against the ordinances.
Opposition Took the Lead
The second aspect that caused Akalis to panic is that the ruling Congress and Opposition Aam Aadmi Party had taken a lead on speaking out against the farm Bills. The Akalis were directly in the line of fire and were finding it difficult to answer questions like why Centre's ordinances and why Harsimrat Kaur didn't rake up the matter in the Cabinet.
Matter of Survival
Rural Sikh voters form the backbone of support for the Akali Dal. But in the 2017 Assembly elections, farmers had voted decisively against the Akalis. The anger was highest in the cotton belt districts like Bathinda, Mansa and Barnala.
These districts are part of the Malwa region which comprises the areas lying to the south of Sutlej river and North of Yamuna. Malwa has traditionally been the epicentre of farmers' movements including the ongoing protests.
The Akalis are desperate to regain their foothold here. The posturing against the Centre's farm Bills is part of that process.
There is another reason for Harsimrat Kaur’s resignation. The Akalis had been facing the heat over the murder and abduction case against former Punjab DGP Sumedh Saini in a murder and abduction case. Saini has been a known Badal acolyte and is seen as the main villain behind the Bargari sacrilege and Behbal Kalan firing. With many in Punjab calling for Saini’s arrest, the Badals were under pressure and the resignation comes as a way to revive their credibility.
Trouble in Akali-BJP Alliance
After the exit of Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal is the BJP’s oldest ally. Their alliance dates back to 1997 when the two parties formed a government together in Punjab. In fact Narendra Modi was the BJP in-charge for the state and played a key role in cementing the tie-up.
But the alliance has been in trouble for the past few years, especially since Sukhbir Badal took control of the party. The two parties have sparred on a number of issues:
- The Akali Dal didn’t contest in alliance with the BJP in the Delhi Assembly elections. The BJP didn’t meet the SAD’s two main demands for six seats and for Akali candidates to contest under their own symbol and not that of the BJP. Though the Akalis announced belated support for the BJP, the damage had already been done.
- The SAD spoke out against the Citizenship Amendment Act, saying that it discriminates against Muslims, though it supported it in Parliament.
- The two parties contested the Haryana Assembly elections separately.
- The Akalis and BJP also clashed over the latter’s alleged attempts to interfere in the affairs of Huzur Sahib in Nanded when it was in power in Maharashtra.
- Despite being in alliance with SAD, the BJP has also tacitly been supporting rebel Akali leaders like Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa. Akalis see this as an attempt to undermine Sukhbir Badal’s leadership. Dhindsa was given a Padma Bhushan by the Modi government despite being a known critic of Sukhbir Badal.
Punjab is also one of the few states that remained untouched by the Modi wave in 2014 as well as 2019. The perception of BJP being “anti-minority” has also prevented it from making inroads among Sikh voters. If the “anti-farmer” tag gets added to it, it would make matters even worse for the BJP. And the Akalis would become guilty by association.
But is this reason enough for the Badals to quit the NDA? This would be clearer after the SAD’s core committee meets soon.
The Build-Up to 2022 Assembly Polls
The farm Bills have the potential of changing political equations ahead of the 2022 Assembly polls in Punjab.
Trouble for BJP
The BJP’s attempts to expand in rural Punjab may suffer a serious jolt as there is a great deal of opposition to the Bills. The “anti-minority” and “anti-farmer” tag would mean that the BJP runs the risk of being restricted to the urban Hindu vote besides some support from a few Deras. Even the urban Hindu vote can’t be counted upon if the 2017 experience is anything to go by. There was a massive shift of this section towards the Congress, especially after the Maur Mandi blast.
The BJP has been wanting to change its power equation with the Akalis and get more seats but these moves may end up affecting its bargaining power.
Churn Within Congress
Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress has had a lacklustre term so far. It has been accused of inaction on the Bargari and Behbal Kalan cases and on the drug menace. It did marginally better on farmers’ issue for the first couple of years but even that goodwill has dissipated.
The anger against the Centre’s Bills are a perfect opportunity for the party. But even on this, there is a tussle within the Congress on who should lead the charge. So far, CM Amarinder Singh and PCC chief Sunil Jakhar had been leading the charge. But Fatehgarh Sahib MLA Kuljit Nagra has tried to steal the thunder by resigning as MLA in protest against the Bills. Being an office bearer of the All India Congress Committee, he is also close to the party high command.
AAP’s Revival Attempts
The AAP has been extremely vocal on the farm Bills. In 2017, it got most of its seats from the areas with the highest agrarian distress in the Malwa region, especially the cotton belt.
Weakened by splits and the Lok Sabha defeat, AAP sees this as an opportunity to revive itself in the state. Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann who had become an important voice of anger against Akalis in the run-up to 2017, is leading the party’s offensive on the issue.
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