Chandigarh: Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s resignation from the Narendra Modi cabinet over the issue of farm ordinances is a make-or-break moment for the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab politics.
The SAD, headed by former deputy chief minister and Harsimrat’s husband Sukhbir Singh Badal, has stuck its neck out, even risking its decades-old bond with the BJP in a clear bid to reclaim its core vote bank — the Jat-Sikh peasant in the agriculture-driven state.
For the beleaguered and fragmented SAD, which was relegated to the third position in the 2017 assembly polls, Harsimrat’s resignation as food processing industries minister for the sake of the farmers is the best bet in the run-up to the next elections in early 2022. Speaking to the media later in the evening, Sukhbir said the Akali Dal had a legacy of being a party of farmers, and was ready to sacrifice anything in their interest.
The Akali Dal’s stand over the issue came as a surprise since Sukhbir had been at pains to justify the Centre’s ordinances on APMCs, contract farming and the Essential Commodities Act over the last three months. But Tuesday, he spoke strongly against the passing of the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, and the next day, the SAD issued a three-line whip that all its MPs in both Houses will vote against all three farm Bills that were originally brought in as ordinances.
The Lok Sabha has passed all three Bills by voice vote — the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill Tuesday and the others Thursday.
Farmers’ issues with the Bills
The farmers are protesting mainly against the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, which follows the ordinance reforming agricultural produce marketing committees, or APMCs.
Farmers believe that the enactment of this Bill will lead to the dissolution of the system where they get minimum support prices for wheat and paddy, through government-controlled mandis. Commission agents, who also benefit from MSP and the mandi system, have joined farmers in protesting this Bill.
The protesters also believe that though initially some farmers might get a better price than MSP for their produce, in the long run, when corporates weed out competition, they would be exploited.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill is considered needless for Punjab, as the state already has a contract farming act since 2013, which has largely remained a non-starter. Contract farming in the state is regulated through mutual trust and ordinary legal agreements. The protesters believe that the new act will force conditions on them that benefit the rich corporates, leading to farmers’ exploitation.
Farmers say corporates will force them to buy costly inputs and to pledge crops to the company without any government security against cheating and manipulation.
On the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, farmers believe that it will remove all cereals, pulses, oilseeds, potato and onion from trade restrictions and price control, thereby taking these commodities out of the MSP regime.
They say all three farm Bills are aimed at “cold corporate cartelisation” of agriculture.
Campaign against ordinances/Bills
To begin with, it was Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress who started the campaign against the ordinances, writing to the Prime Minister over the issue and even calling an all-party meet to build a consensus. On 28 August, during a one-day session of the assembly, Amarinder moved a resolution rejecting the ordinances, which was passed by majority.
However, for the last two weeks, as the conglomerate of farmer unions took to the streets protesting against the ordinances, the Congress effort was limited to criticising the Akali Dal on this issue as well as its alliance with the BJP.
After Sukhbir’s speech criticising these Bills in Parliament Tuesday, Amarinder announced that the Congress would challenge the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill in court. Then, Wednesday morning, he led a delegation of Congress leaders to Punjab Governor V.P.S. Badnore, and handed him a memorandum demanding non-persuance of the Bills by the Modi government.
Even after Harsimrat’s resignation Thursday, Amarinder termed it a move which was “too little, too late”, and part of a “long chain of theatrics” by the SAD.
The main opposition Aam Aadmi Party, too, tried to play catch up with the Akalis, and Wednesday, its Punjab chief and lone Lok Sabha MP Bhagwant Mann claimed the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill was “never put to vote”, and thus Sukhbir couldn’t claim his party had voted against it. In another damage-control bid, AAP convener and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal tweeted Thursday that his party would vote against the farm Bills.
खेती और किसानों से संबंधित तीन क़ानून संसद में लाए गए हैं जो किसान विरोधी हैं। देश भर में किसान इनका विरोध कर रहे हैं। केंद्र सरकार को इन तीनों क़ानूनों को वापस लेना चाहिए। आम आदमी पार्टी संसद में इनके विरोध में वोट करेगी।
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) September 17, 2020
But with Harsimrat’s resignation as Union minister, the Akalis have, at least for the time being, stolen a march on the Congress and AAP.
Akali Dal’s slide
The SAD-BJP alliance ruled Punjab under CM Parkash Singh Badal, Sukhbir’s father, for 10 years from 2007 to 2017, but lost badly to the Congress, which won 77 of the state’s 117 seats. The AAP got 20 seats while the Akali-BJP alliance could manage only 18 seats. The election results were, however, only the beginning of the SAD’s slide in Punjab.
One of the primary reasons for the Akalis’ defeat was a series of incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy text, in 2015. The Badals’ government failed to nab those responsible for the sacrilege, and then, the Punjab Police, which was under the command of then-home minister Sukhbir, fired at and killed two Sikh youth participating in a protest. This alienated the Jat-Sikh peasant — the SAD’s core vote bank.
The alienation was evident when a subsequent sarbat khalsa organised by Sikh hardliners in November 2015 received massive support from Sikhs across Punjab.
Since coming to power, the Congress has continued to use the sacrilege issue to take on the Badals. A commission of inquiry set up by the Amarinder government indicted the Badals for not taking any action against the culprits of the sacrilege for “political motives”. The commission, in its report submitted to the government in June 2018, held that the followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa were responsible for the sacrilege and the Badals refused to take action against them because they wanted the Dera to support them during the assembly elections.
Following the commission’s report, many in the Congress believed that the Badal father and son would be arrested in the criminal cases registered against them.
Internal divide and blaming the BJP
The sacrilege issue was not the only trouble facing the Badals since they were voted out of power. In October 2018, a host of the party’s old guard, many of whom had been in the Akali Dal for several decades, parted ways over the sacrilege issue. They held Sukhbir and his brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia — Harsimrat’s brother — responsible for the humiliating defeat in the assembly elections and mishandling of the sacrilege issue. These leaders went ahead and created their own party — the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali).
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the SAD managed to win just two of Punjab’s 13 seats — Harsimrat barely retained Bathinda and Sukhbir won the party’s traditional seat of Ferozepur. The BJP won two seats — Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur.
After the polls, the Akali Dal saw the exit of another party stalwart and a long-time friend and comrade of Parkash Singh Badal, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa. Dhindsa, a Rajya Sabha MP, left the party along with his son and former state finance minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa to form the Shiromani Akali Dal (Democratic).
It is a widespread belief in Punjab politics that the state BJP has been instrumental in propping up the Dhindsas as alternative Jat-Sikh leaders to command a new version of the SAD, which would be free of the Badals. The BJP has made it very clear that it wants a larger share of the pie in Punjab and wants to become an equal partner, if not the dominant one.
A section of the Punjab BJP believes it lost the assembly elections as well as the Lok Sabha polls mainly because the Badals were hated across the state, and that continuing with a Badal-headed SAD will only lead to another electoral debacle in 2022.
Sources in the SAD say the Badals are not at all happy with the manner in which the state BJP has been “allowed to encourage dissension” within their party.
Harsimrat’s resignation, therefore, poses two questions — are the Akalis going to break their alliance with the BJP, and will the farmers accept the Badal-led SAD back into their hearts?