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Punjab's Farmers, Parties & State's Political Mood | Midweek Matters 38

09-12-2021published_dt 2021-12-09T05:56:01.332Z09-12-2021 11:26:01 IST
2021-12-09T05:56:01.332Z09-12-2021 2021-12-09T05:56:01.332Z - - 28-11-2022

Hello and welcome to Midweek Matters.

I’m happy to be back. I told you in my last episode that I was starting a tour of the Election bound states to understand their political mood. I completed Punjab, the first on my list. I’m waiting to travel to other states. My schedule is not yet firmed up. Things are uncertain in the wake of Omnicron variant. I hope there’s clarity on the safety of travel soon. Today I will give you a summary of what I found out in my travel in Punjab.

I did a ten day intensive tour of Punjab. I clocked about two thousand kilometres, traversing the three main regions of the state - Malwa, Doaba and Majha. I met over 500 people representing almost all sections of the state's society: men and women, in villages and towns, rich and poor, young and old, farmers, labourers, unemployed, students, employees. Some individually and some in small groups. They have all been surprisingly forthcoming in expressing their views and generous with their time. I must tell you that no one, I repeat, no one would like me to leave them without having a snack, or a meal if it was meal time, or at least a cup of tea. I was amazed at the hospitality of the people, and the goodwill they showed towards a complete stranger. I’ve also had long conversations with academics in universities and research institutes. I immensely benefitted by their insights gained from their years of dedicated study of the socio political processes of the state. I have deliberately avoided meeting political party leaders.


The overall impression I gathered when I left the state is this: Punjab is restless. It is in pain. It feels let down by the state's politics, it’s leaders and political parties. A sense of its political alienation from Delhi is palpable. It desperately wants to trust somebody. It is looking for that somebody. Perhaps it also knows, at the back of its mind, that there’s hardly anybody it can depend on. And that finally when the time comes, it has to choose a political platform that is less undependable, and unwillingly settle for it for the next five years. Price rise, drug menace, joblessness, farm laws, fall in incomes, increase in thefts, lawlessness, insult to sacred text cause anguish to its people. What is more painful to them is the perception that its political leaders and successive governments are indifferent to these issues. There is hopelessness in the young of the state. They want to leave not just their state but the country in search of a better life. Walls even in tiny villages have screaming advertisements of agencies that offer visa and immigration help to Canada and Australia. So are for institutes that coach students for IELTS tests.

On the morning of the last day of my travel came the unexpected announcement by the Prime Minister declaring his intention to repeal the three farm laws. Immediate reaction of the man on the street was jubilation. However, I could not find signs of abatement of anger against the Prime Minister, his party, and the union government. In Punjab the repeal announcement is unlikely to yield political dividends to BJP. The anger is intense; the wound, raw. In many conversations the Prime Minister was referred to less than respectably. You have to listen to the remarks to believe it. BJP leaders are unwelcome in most of the villages in all the three regions of the state. In many places, banners/posters were put up with slogans like: BJP/RSS Murdabad. Recent reopening of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor has not generated the kind of goodwill the state BJP leadership has expected. As things stand today, BJP has little or no chance of being in the reckoning in the coming elections. Shiromani Akali Dal is viewed with suspicion because of its association with BJP. The Akali Dal's quitting the NDA over farm laws has not helped the party recover its lost political ground. It’s panthic support base too is unhappy on account of the party's inaction in the case of tearing off pages from the holy book, the incident known as Bargari Kand. The Akali Dal government did not bring the culprits to book.

Instead it is seen as the government that fired on those who protested against the desecration. Large number of devout Sikhs are yet to forgive the party for the death of two people in that firing. Many who voted for the Akali Dal in the last Assembly elections intend to move away from it this time. There is a strong indication of a further erosion of its support base. Those who intend to remain with it lack passion and continue to extend support without enthusiasm.

There is a widespread feeling that the Congress government under Captain Amarinder Singh did not deliver on its promises. Two things are held against the former Chief Minister. First, that he did not fulfil the promise he made to curb the menace of drugs. The fact that soon after he took office, he swore on Gutka, the Sikh holy book, to assure the people that he would eliminate the drug menace and yet failed to take resolute action has earned him the wrath of the public. Second, he is seen as an inaccessible leader. Punjab is in no mood to indulge the Maharaja this time. Association with him adds no political value to the BJP, even after the repeal of the three farm laws. Punjab refuses to see the union government's climb down on farm laws as anything but a victory for the agitation. And surely not as the PM's generosity or an outcome of Captain Amarinder Singh's pressure on the union government. In the event, the yet to be registered political party of the former Chief Minister is likely to be stillborn.

The recent significant political development in Punjab is the replacement of Captain Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Singh Channi as the Chief Minister. The move undoubtedly has implications for the electoral fortunes of Congress. By extension, it also is likely to impact the prospects of Aam Admi Party. Until the change of guard, AAP has seen a huge surge in support. The state was disillusioned with the Congress government under Captain Amarinder Singh. In fact, the opinion that the Captain, the top leadership of Akalis and the BJP's central leadership are working in league has gained ground. Therefore, Congress under Amarinder Singh was seen to be as unelectable as the Akali Dal and the BJP are. The sections who preferred the Congress to Akali-BJP combine in the last polls began their shift to AAP. They wanted to give the as yet untested AAP a try. That accounts for the massive surge in AAP's support before the new Chief Minister took over. With the change of guard, however, those sections are having second thoughts. Some of those sections are on their way back to Congress is evident. The change of guard manoeuvre has blunted the sharp edge of anti incumbency to some extent. There is one remarkable thing in the present political conversation in Punjab. The new Chief Minister has managed to become a household name in a short time. He being the first Dalit Chief Minister of the state lends a social dimension to the discourse. People are prepared to watch him. They seem to have reserved their judgement on him and the Congress. Hpwever, the extent of damage the running battle between the Chief Minister and his state party Chief can cause is yet unclear. But that it will cause damage is certain.

The biggest loser as a result of Congress party's repositioning is AAP. There’s a lot of goodwill for the party at present, among all sections of the Punjab society. It is more pronounced among the young and first time voters. It is able to attract erstwhile voters of both Akali Dal and Congress. Many women in remote villages too said they wanted to give the new party a chance. However, AAP lacks organisation, cadre, recognisable faces in many constituencies. Some people see it as a party with roots outside the state. Its biggest handicap is its procrastination over announcing the Chief Minister face.

Electorally, Congress and AAP are in a tight contest, with a slight edge for the ruling Congress, at the moment. The party which commits less errors will have more chances of winning. However, mistakes of AAP and Congress do not have equal potential for damage.

AAP's mistakes are likely to be less damaging to it. Whereas even small mistakes by Congress can drastically swing the mood of the state in favour of AAP which is seen as an alternative that deserves a chance. When they return home from the agitation, the mood of Punjab's highly networked, politically conscious and well informed farmers can be a clincher.

That’s all for this week, I will be back again next week

Wednesday, lunch time at 1:00 o’clock.

Stay safe and do take good care of yourselves and all your loved ones.

Until then, Bye.