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What the Punjab Municipal Poll Congress tells us about the impact of farm protests

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Chandigarh: Not long ago, the ruling Congress in Punjab was facing a crisis of sorts. Its own MLAs were talking against Prime Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.

The latest hook tragedy in Punjab August which took over 120 lives expanded rive within the party behind its top leader and MP Rajya Sabha Partap Singh Bajwa openly blamed Singh for tragedy.

While someone thought the ruling government was losing control of the land, rural Punjabi suddenly sparked outrage on the eve of the BJP-run Centers to pass three agricultural laws in mid-September, and the story changed.

In the first major polls to be held in Punjab against the backdrop of massive farmers’ protests, Congress included state municipal polls, winning 98 of the 109 municipal councils and nagar panchayats and seven of the eight major municipal corporations that went to voting on 14 February.

The areas in Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Moga and Pathankot districts were relocated in favor of Congress, which until now was considered the stronghold of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its former ally, the BJP.

The victory is being considered important since it came in the last year of the five-year term of the congressional government before the state elects a new assembly. More than 39 lakh voters, almost 20% of the assembly electorate, voted in these local elections.

The state will go for new polls early next year, along with UP, where also farmers’ protests have increased in scale and size, especially in the western part of the state.

Congressional candidates celebrate their victory in Punjab local elections. Photo: PTI

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How, then, did Congress make a massive victory in municipal polls when it was apparently on the verge of a crisis barely months ago?

While opposition parties, including the BJP which lost badly in these polls, claimed that the state machinery under the ruling Congress did not hold elections in a free and fair manner, there is more to it than meets the eye.

A large number of political experts believed that Congress gained from the tactical support given to the protesters, whether in connection with bringing in State Bills to defy Central laws or announcing compensation and jobs to relatives of those who died during the protests. .

The failure of the Center or the BJP government in Haryana to accept even the deaths of farmers only made the position of Congress stronger.

Mohammed Khalid, a professor of political science at Panjab University in Chandigarh, said Congress won more by “negative votes” than “positive votes” for his performance. He said the issue of farmers was in the spotlight.

He said the opposition in Punjab was already weak before these polls. Khalid said there has been a noticeable outrage against the BJP Punjab unit. This was not only from the farmers, but also from its traditional voting base arhtiyas (merchants or business class), who plunged into the party either because of the direct engagement of laws with agricultural trade or because they suffered business losses due to protests.

Akalis and BJP fought the elections separately, resulting in a split of their traditional voting base into cities and semi-urban areas that went to municipal voting.

“Since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) still did not have a strong organizational structure and was not yet a serious player, what options did the voters have then,” Khalid said.

He sometimes said, the so-called no-play factor plays an important role in elections. “This, I believed, was at stake in the massive defeat of the opposition and the victory more than expected for Congress in municipal polls,” he added.

Haryana farmers welcome Punjab farmers heading to Delhi to attend the tractor rally on January 26th. Photo: PTI

But Parmod Kumar, director at the Institute for Development and Communication, believed that not much should be read in these polls, which are largely state-controlled and voters still depend on state grants for their work.

Go back to the 2015 municipal polls and the then ruling SAD-BJP government recorded a massive victory in the municipal polls. But a year later, they faced a miserable loss in assembly polls, he said.

But Parmod agreed that these elections were “unusual” in the way it was found that BJP was on the wrong side of the development paradigm in the Punjab as a result of farm issues.

I say this because not only farmers, but artijas, merchants or shopkeepers were also confused with the party. That is why he could not find enough candidates for these municipal polls. Even those who fought, over 90% of them could not do since facing the boycott, he said.

Parmod said that unlike other states, the rural-urban divide is not very sharp in Punjab. “In towns or small towns (that went to municipal elections) you have a mixed population. In every mohalla, there is a house of a peasant, as well as that of a merchant. “So the situation was very unusual for BJP,” he said.

But BJP state president Ashwani Sharma does not believe so.

I tha ai Wires that the ruling Congress created such a negative atmosphere that it made it almost impossible for BJP candidates to present their nomination and then use it on the ground.

The result would have been completely different if we had been allowed to campaign on the ground. But Congress, in dressing up farm issues, hijacked the election and did not let our candidates come out freely. Now they claim it is a mandate against farm laws. How can it be when municipal elections are fought in the streets and drained, he said.

Opposition leader and VET member Harpal Singh Cheema also joined the BJP saying Congress did not win but looted the election. SADs Daljit Cheema also accused Congress of changing the voter list at the last minute and misusing state machinery.

Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of Indian politics at Panjab University, is of the opinion that the ruling party always has an advantage in municipal polls. “But without a doubt, Congress has definitely won from the troubles of its opponents,” he said.

The results show that SAD lost its traditional areas, which means it has not been able to recover from its recent setbacks. Also, SAD to separate with BJP on farm laws and the party that came out late in support of the farmers did not help him either, Ashutosh said.

In the final count, Congress won 1,199 out of 1,815 pavilions (town councils and nagar panchayats) and 281 out of 350 municipal corporate seats. The SAD took 289th and 33rd seats, with BJP limited to only 38 and 20 seats, and VET to 57th and 9th. The remaining seats went mainly to independent candidates and left-wing political parties.

Will they keep up with the latest trends until the 2022 polls?

During Wednesday conference, Punjab State Congress President Sunil Jhakhar used the municipal poll victory to launch the Captain’s 2022 campaign, making it almost clear that Singh will be back in the lead for the next election, even though he had announced the goal of his to hang boots after the 2017 polls

Singh, in a statement, boldly said that the drunkenness that SAD, BJP and VET have taken in these civic polls is just the tip of the iceberg. The three are set to “disappear” from the political arena in the Punjabs in next year ‘s polls and then from the political landscape of nations in the coming months, he claimed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former Punjab Parks Prime Minister Singh Badal. Photo: PTI / Files

But questions remain whether the farm agitation can continue for more time to take advantage of Congress and create further political opponents for strong BJP, not only in Punjab but also in UP, where shares for the saffron party are much higher.

Parmod Kumar said that despite these developments, the five-year performance of the ruling government cannot be ignored whenever new polls are announced in Punjab.

As for the farmers’ protest and its electoral influence, Parmod said, I think politically this move is very important. But there is not enough electoral arithmetic on its side. Only 20% of the state 13 growers are protesting in Delhi. A large part of the Dalit and Hindu population of the state are not part of it.

He said, My thesis is always that in Punjab, Hindus and Dalits decide who their prime minister Jat is. In the last 11 state elections, the Yats won no more than 50 assembly seats in the House of Members 117. The remaining 67 seats were divided between Hindus and Dalits in all parties. A Jat is always the prime minister because of their hegemony and control over the energy corridors.

But old journalist Hamir Singh is of the opinion that future assembly polls in Punjab cannot be seen through the lens of the same old caste factor or traditional poll arithmetic, especially when the farmers’ protest has woven new social coalitions.

He said the protest may have been started by farmers, but it has largely turned into an anti-corporate movement, affecting all deprived sections of society including farmers, outcasts or small traders.

He said this is why the protest had an impact during the municipal elections, even though they were limited to towns and cities.

If that were not the case, what possible reasons could BJP have after losing the mayoral seats in the big corporations in Haryana, despite the party being in power. Now in the Punjab, similar trends have emerged, with the ruling Congress receiving a major boost as the BJP collapsed and other parties could not position themselves in favor of the issue, Hamir Singh said.

He said, If you see it, a part of the Dalit workers are already participating in the farmers’ protest. Their number will definitely increase in the future and then end up creating a common ground for different castes and classes.

He said kisan mahapanchayats are already mobilizing various communities in Haryana, Punjab and UP. “This is why there is now pressure within BJP and RSS to end the blockade with farmers more quickly, as the protest is mobilizing people in places like UP, Bihar and MP, where saffron shares are much higher.” Tha ai.

Farmers during ‘Kisan Mahapanchayat’ against new farm laws, in Jind, Haryana. Photo: PTI

Hamir Singh said that is why Congress probably does not want the farmers’ protest to end soon, at least until the state elections in Punjab and UP early next year, because it has been essential in building anti-BJP sentiment , especially after the protest became international.

While Congress is optimistic, the way other political parties, particularly the SAD, win back its main peasant vote bank, which is largely at the forefront of the farm movement, will be interesting to watch.

And where does VET find itself when its perpetrators say it failed to cultivate strong leadership and build an organized grassroots structure.

Author and journalist Jagtar Singh said that since the farmers’ protest will emerge as a key issue in future polls, opposition parties need to work harder to stay relevant.

He said the SAD should start with a simple recognition of their essential basis that they misread farm bills in the first place. Then he should start programs to reconnect with the gross level, which has always been his main strength, he said.

As falsifying links with the BJP once again seems difficult, the SAD must start cultivating Dali and Hindu leadership within the party to target voters in urban areas if it wants to stay relevant in future polls.

In the 2012 assembly polls, the SAD nominated up to 11 Hindu candidates and 10 of them ended up winning it. So they should do similar experiments to expand the party’s voting base, said Jagtar Singh.



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