Haryana (and Punjab): Farmers turn up the heat on the BJP

Posters have come up across both states, warning BJP candidates and campaigners against entering villages

In neighbouring Punjab too, local bans on BJP, JJP workers are seen (photo courtesy @ramanmann1974/X)
In neighbouring Punjab too, local bans on BJP, JJP workers are seen (photo courtesy @ramanmann1974/X)

Rashme Sehgal

The timing and ferocity of the farmers’ protests across Haryana has caught the BJP by surprise.

But then, having successfully driven wedges between different farmers’ organisations, sown doubts and kept leaders busy in protracted dialogues over the last two years, how could it realistically expect their anger to have dissipated?

With campaigning in full swing for the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana (all won by the BJP in 2019), the BJP has received a rude shock this time.

Posters have come up across the state, warning BJP candidates and campaigners against entering villages. As farmers intensified their protests in Hisar, Sirsa, Fatehabad, Jind, Sonipat and Rohtak districts, candidates forcing their way through have often been physically stopped.

Last week, farmers blocked former deputy chief minister Dushyant Chautala’s mother Naina Chautala’s entourage from entering Roj Khera in the Hisar Lok Sabha constituency. In the violent clash that followed, some of her supporters were hurt. Most BJP and Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) candidates have now been provided security cover to enable them to campaign.

Even so, the entire Chautala clan, including father Ajay Chautala and his other son Digvijay, as well as BJP’s Hisar nominee Ranjit Singh Chautala, are being heckled and prevented from entering village after village. Farmers holding black flags opposed Dushyant’s cavalcade from entering Nara and Gamra villages, forcing him to walk.

BJP candidates in Punjab have been met with similar expressions of anger by villagers who are in no mood to overlook the wounds inflicted on them during the 2020–21 agitation against the three draconian farm laws and the sacrifices made by their "brothers" in order to get them repealed.

Memories of the Dilli Chalo agitation have been revived.

The way authorities used iron nails, barbed wire and concrete barricades to prevent the farmers from bringing their protests to the doorstep of the capital is something they are not willing to forgive or forget.

Farmers’ organisations in Punjab have put up posters stating, ‘Kisana da Delhi jana bandh hai, BJP da pinda vich auna bandh hai (Farmers are banned from entering Delhi, BJP is banned from entering villages)’. Videos have gone viral on Facebook and Instagram.

Baldev Singh Zira, general secretary of the BKU (Bharatiya Kisan Union) Krantikari group, condemned the government for the death of Shubhkaran Singh and the use of tear gas and pellets against protesting farmers, blinding many.

The long shadow of those actions saw farmers laying siege to the Moti Bagh Palace residence of former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh after a protester was killed at a poll meeting being addressed by Preneet Kaur, his wife and BJP candidate from Patiala.

The confusion has been compounded by the switching over of several Congress candidates, including Preneet Kaur, who has been a four-time MP from the Congress and had worked along with her husband Captain Amarinder Singh (then also in the Congress) to put pressure on the Modi government to repeal the farm laws in 2021.

Or take the case of Ravneet Singh Bittu, a sitting Congress MP from Ludhiana who has recently moved to the BJP, which has fielded him from the same seat this time.

Bittu has also been at the receiving end of the farmers’ ire, despite his reminding them that he supported them right through their agitation, even sleeping on the ground in the freezing cold at Jantar Mantar in solidarity.

The one candidate who has succeeded in mollifying the angry farmers somewhat is Hans Raj Hans, the popular Sufi singer who was earlier an MP from north-west Delhi but is now contesting from Faridkot.

He goes from village to village begging for forgiveness. Though he has been turned away on occasion, he believes their anger is somewhat tempered. Off the record, he likes to joke that his name should now be changed to ‘Minnat Raj Minnat (Pleader Raj Pleading)' since all he has done in this election is plead with the farmers.

Former Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s tactless remark — “Kuch log sirphirey aise hote hain jo apni dabangai chalate hain (some people are so crazy and wayward, flaunting and flexing their authority), the more they protest, the more people associate themselves with the Bharatiya Janata Party” — spurred further protests.

On 21 April, a day after Khattar’s comment, farmers staged a protest against the BJP’s Sirsa candidate Ashok Tanwar during his public meeting in Dabwali town. The farmers’ intention to gherao him was stymied by a police cordon around him.

According to Pagri Sambhal Jatta Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, a farmers’ union that is part of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, these protests are all part of ‘Jawab do, hisab lo (answer and be accountable)'.

The BJP brass had hoped that getting a large number of Congressmen to cross over into their fold would mollify the farmers’ anger but this has not happened.

Since 17 April, farmers have been blocking the tracks at the Shambhu railway station, demanding the release of three farm activists arrested by the Haryana Police. This has resulted in the short termination or diversion of almost 100 trains a day.

After his party leaders were booed and greeted with black flags as they attempted to enter the villages, especially in the Malwa and Majha belts of Punjab, state BJP chief Sunil Jakhar on 6 May lodged a complaint with chief electoral officer C. Sibin, stating that the AAP government had failed to ensure their right to campaign.

Again, Sunil Jakhar was a Congress stalwart who left in 2022 because he believed the party was facing an ‘existential crisis’. It has not been a happy landing for him. Although Punjab has seen a major polarisation of Hindu votes, Jakhar has always maintained that a mainstream political party must take all sections of society with it.

The BJP believes the farmers’ protests are being driven by the Jat population which comprises 23 per cent of the populace. Their attempt has been to bypass the Jat voters and focus on the OBC section which comprises 40 per cent of the population in Haryana.

Said a political analyst, “That explains why Khattar, a non-Jat, was made chief minister. Sainis are also a powerful community in Haryana and it is to woo them that they have now installed a Saini (Nayab Singh Saini) as chief minister.”

Former chief minister Bhupinder Hooda believes the farmers’ protests and banning candidates from entering their villages is justified, given that Haryana has the highest unemployment rate in India and that the introduction of the Agniveer scheme has ruined the prospects of hundreds of young men from his state.

Khattar would like to believe that these protests “will ultimately prove beneficial to the BJP”. On the ground, however, it is the candidates who are feeling the heat and are blaming the Congress for fanning this agitation. (Doubtless, in the Jat belt of Haryana, the Congress appears to be on a strong wicket.)

In a belated attempt to win votes, Digvijay Chautala has openly admitted in a video that the BJP is facing this crisis because of “their arrogance and misdeeds”.

Haryana goes to vote on 25 May while voting in neighbouring Punjab will take place on 1 June. While the Congress is expected to do well in the rural constituencies, the BJP is pinning its hope on the urban constituencies of Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Gurdaspur in Punjab. Whether they can buck the tide of Hindu consolidation remains to be seen.

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