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BJP in a spot as Punjab unit leaders want party leadership to address farmers’ concerns

Many Punjab BJP leaders are not convinced with the party high command’s unilateral move to pass the bills without consulting the state unit.

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New Delhi: With the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) parting ways with the NDA over farm bills, the BJP now finds itself at a crossroads in Punjab, where state unit leaders have taken a different stance on the issue.

Farmers are agitating in the state and have also called for a boycott of BJP leaders in many villages.

Deviating from the stance taken by the BJP high command on the farmers protests, state party leaders said that protests are being led by the farmers only and that their concerns should be addressed in “a better way”.

Many central BJP leaders have said these protests are handiwork of the opposition.

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar had said in the Lok Sabha last week: “Nation knows that those who are protesting are not farmers but Congress associates. They have promised to end APMC in their manifesto, they are only misleading farmers in Punjab.”

In an interview to ANI last week, Tomar said: “Netas, not farmers, are worried about agri bills.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also endorsed the same view. 

But many Punjab BJP leaders are not convinced with the party high command’s unilateral move to pass the bills without consulting the state unit.

BJP leader and former urban development minister in the SAD-BJP government in the state Manoranjan Kalia told ThePrint: “It is wrong to say these are not farmers protests, the protests are led by farmers and their associations. Congress may be using the protests for political purposes, but the issue is farmers are worried over the bills and their concerns should be addressed in a better way.”

Asked if the BJP will lose Punjab if they do not side with the farmers, Kalia said: “It is a matter of concern for us because Punjab is the only state where agriculture and its allied services contribute maximum to the state economy. More than 70 per cent people are dependent on agriculture and its allied services. We are trying to convince the farmers.”

Another Punjab BJP leader, who didn’t want to be named, said the BJP shouldn’t have passed the bills in haste.

“The message has not gone well. The bills are pro-farmers, but in politics optics and perception are more important. We should have consulted with the farmers groups before passing the bills,” he added.

Also read: When Modi govt came to power, farmer protests increased 700% — the 3 bills are its result

Catch-22 situation 

In Punjab, the BJP is not the dominant player and its vote bank is largely urban-centric.

The party got 10 per cent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and won two seats. In the 2017 assembly elections, it got 5.4 per cent vote share, sliding from the 7.2 per cent it got in 2012.  

The Akalis got 25.2 per cent vote share in 2017 due to huge anti-incumbency, dropping from 34.7 per cent they got in 2012. 

Many BJP leaders have earlier raised the demand to fight alone in Punjab or seek equal seats from the Akalis. But now, under the changed circumstances, the BJP has no option but to fight the next election independently if the SAD doesn’t join hands again.

A second BJP leader and former state minister told ThePrint: “Before the farmers’ protest, we were in a good position.”

“The Akalis were losing their foothold and the Congress were facing anti-incumbency. It was an opportunity for the BJP to consolidate its base, but the farmers issue has now changed the dynamics altogether in Punjab. The Akalis are back in the picture again,” he said.

“The farmers are protesting in the rural belt. Who will vote for the BJP in rural areas? The BJP has to make a plan for the long term like we did in Haryana, but if the issue persists, it will be difficult for the BJP to come to power in 2022,” he said.

Madan Mohan Mittal, former Punjab minister, said if the BJP wants to increase its footprint in the state, it has to win over the rural belt.

“Punjab is primarily an agricultural state and farmers are the main stakeholders. If the BJP wants to increase its footprint, it has to win the rural sector, which is against the BJP. But in politics, the situation changes. So we are watching the situation unfold,” he added.

Another area of concern for the BJP in Punjab is that the state shares its border with Pakistan, which may try to take advantage of the farmers’ unrest. Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said the same Monday.

“ISI looks for people they can easily arm with guns and grenades. In the last 3 years, we have held over 150 terrorists. Everything in Punjab was peaceful, but when your bread and butter is snatched, won’t you be furious? They become a target of ISI. What the government did (passage of the bills) is anti-national,” the CM said.

Also read: Opposition has finally come together on farm legislation. But that won’t be enough

Lack of a Sikh leader 

The BJP’s other problem in Punjab is that it doesn’t have an influential Sikh leader, who has a strong hold in the rural sector after Navjot Singh Sidhu’s departure in 2016.

BJP leader Bikramjit Singh Cheema isn’t considered as someone who can swing elections.

Newly appointed general secretary Tarun Chugh, however, told ThePrint: “We will convince the farmers. The bills are pro-farmers. The Congress is only trying to get benefit out of it by diverting attention from their own misgovernance.”

A third BJP leader said: “The bills were passed to fulfil the larger reform agenda of the prime minister and the party approach is to push that agenda nationally.”

Also read: All about the 3 Modi govt ordinances Haryana farmers are protesting against


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