Worries of a Fresh Crop: Why the Spiralling Farmers’ Protests Are Making Punjab Politicians Jittery

After the euphoria now the apprehension. As the farmers’ protests don’t show any immediate signs of ending and the protesters have dug their heels in, many political parties are seeking to benefit from the movement.

One thing the farmers have made clear is that while politicians may try to milk the protests, they should stay away from the actual protest spots. And this is what is worrying many political parties, especially the stakeholders in Punjab.

Cut to the Anna Hazare movement, which began in New Delhi in 2011 with a hunger strike in demand for the Jan Lokpal Bill to fight corruption. The government in power and the ruling Congress were in a pickle. The movement captured the minds of the people, especially the middle class, and many youth joined in. The more the Congress struggled to cope with it, the more powerful the movement began. And here too politicians from mainstream parties were largely kept away.

While the Congress, being in power, tried to negotiate, others like the BJP could only look from a distance but with smiles on their faces. The decimation of the Congress and the UPA in the 2014 parliamentary polls was largely due to the Anna movement and the narrative it built of the UPA being corrupt and anti-people.

The similarity with the present farmers’ movement, however, ends here. Firstly, it’s largely limited to north India and that too Punjab and Haryana. The Anna movement, while based in Delhi, had captured the space in many other parts of the country. There were similar movements in many southern and western regions. So far, apart from a few small groups, not many are supporting the farmers. But since the protests are close to Delhi, it has captured the mind of the media and also the Centre.

The other important factor is that till now the middle class hasn’t been drawn by the farmers’ movement and protests. A senior MP from Punjab says, “It’s early days yet, but so far the middle class has not been pulled into this. The day they are, the politicians would have a reason to be worried even more.”

But as far as politicians, especially Captain Amarinder Singh, is concerned, they have a reason to be apprehensive. The Akalis are still having to grapple with the perception of being a part of the NDA cabinet when the farm bills were passed. Their exit from the government is seen as having come a little bit too late. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), many of whose leaders like Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia were part of the India Against Corruption movement of Anna Hazare, may be waiting to see what turn the protests take. If the movement throws up an alternate leadership, then the party’s dream of capturing Punjab and Haryana may become more distant. And AAP knows very well what a movement, which is initially apolitical and with absence of political backing, may lead to.

Now for Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. His worries are beyond just the movement. He has tried to adopt a middle path. While attacking Haryana chief minister ML Khattar for not doing enough for the farmers, Captain has been at the forefront to fight for the farmers. But the fact remains that Punjab is a border state and there is a worry that if things go out of control it could mean serious security issues for the vulnerable region.

The CM though is aware that as of now the Akalis and AAP to a certain extent are not on a strong footing on this issue. And this is fertile ground for the emergence of a new leader or movement like in 2011. Which is why Captain is also goading some farmer unions to speak to the central government to break the ice.

The worry is that the longer the impasse remains, the chances of a new alternative emerging grows. And this is something which none of the political parties want. So the more protracted the protests become, the chances of the middle class becoming embroiled and also it spreading to other states become significant. Not many Punjab politicians would want to see that materialise.

Another worry is a déjà vu moment for the Congress from 2005 when the ‘kisaan-paani’ issue had hit the party. The present protests are largely of Jat Sikhs and people from rural Punjab. With Hindus and urban areas still staying away from the farmer protests, the Congress and Captain are worried about polarisation which could work for the BJP with the urban and Hindu votes going to the saffron party in the 2022 assembly polls.

So, for now, the protests are being watched nervously by the Punjab government and politicians.

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