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View: BJP’s strategic withdrawal on farm laws to halt erosion of political capital

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Western UP sends nearly 130 legislators to the assembly and the BJP won 51 of the 71 seats in just three divisions of Meerut, Saharanpur and Moradabad in 2017 polls. The calculation becomes complex when the area of influence expands to Terai region which also casts a shadow in contiguous parts of Uttrakhand

View: BJP’s strategic withdrawal on farm laws to halt erosion of political capital
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on Friday to repeal the three contentious farm laws enacted a year ago set the political ball rolling in the cycle of electoral calculations in crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
In about three months, people of these states along with those of Uttrakhand, Manipur and Goa would be voting for a new government. Barring Punjab, the stakes are highest for the BJP as it has a government in each state, and among these UP occupies the pride of place.
The centrality of UP to national politics is well established on several counts. One, it has the largest assembly in the country with 403 seats, contributes a maximum 80 seats to the Lok Sabha and sets the pace in the Hindi-speaking states. Little wonder why political pundits perceive UP as a bellwether state that determines politics across North India.
Now for the past one year, agitation by farmers who literally parked themselves at the outskirts of Delhi demanding withdrawal of these farm laws acquired a momentum of its own. Except for violence on Republic Day, it stands out on two counts-- peaceful protest and keeping it free from acquiring any political shade.
Farmers drawn from various communities demonstrated the efficacy of collective strength. They remained steadfast in staying the course braving elements across four seasons and intermittent action by law enforcing agencies.
The protesters blocked national highways causing inconvenience to commuters traversing especially those connecting the National Capital Region. Yet by choosing not to join the issue on this prolonged travel disruption ordinary people in a way lent tacit support to the farmers.
India remains a predominantly agrarian economy and farmers from the states of UP, Punjab and Haryana were in the forefront of protests. Over the past week, several farmers' organisations promised to intensify the struggle outlining plans in the run-up to the winter session of Parliament starting on November 29.
With elections round the corner, the farmers decided to adopt more aggressive tactics of denying the BJP leaders space to campaign. In fact, over the past few months reports from Punjab, Haryana and western UP suggest the farmers resorting to ‘gherao’ (surround) local leaders and state Ministers during constituency or official visits.
While the BJP leadership at the Central and State level maintained that only a section of the prosperous farmers were leading the protest, and that the laws benefited majority of the small and marginal farmers, reports from the ground indicated the agitation had begun hurting the party.
The BJP’s image also took a beating after protests in Lakhimpur Kheri resulted in the death of seven people leading to the arrest of the son of a Union Minister and the Supreme Court ordering a judicial probe into the incident. With farmers also insisting on sending delegations towards Parliament, the situation could have stirred the cauldron of protest further.
Now, while farmers from western region were the driving force, these groups were altering the political landscape. The Rashtriya Lok Dal that held a sway in the Jat-dominated region was regaining ground and a possible tie-up with the Samajwadi Party under Akhilesh Yadav can prove detrimental to the BJP’s plan to retain its government.
Western UP sends nearly 130 legislators to the assembly and the BJP won 51 of the 71 seats in just three divisions of Meerut, Saharanpur and Moradabad in 2017 polls. The calculation becomes complex when the area of influence expands to Terai region which also casts a shadow in contiguous parts of Uttrakhand, a state where to counter perceptions the BJP effected a change of Chief Minister twice between March and July this year.
The Punjab blowback
Today the farmers of Punjab and neighbouring Haryana can take pride that the contribution by organisations was the bulwark. Early on, videos of farmers bleeding from wounds and enduring cane charge by police created a negative impression against the government. The farmers from these states also provided logistic support to those sitting on dharna both in the state and on borders.
In Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh government was sympathetic in dealing with the protesting farmers and their cause. The political situation altered after the Congress forced a change of guard that turned messy.
This created a fertile ground for the BJP in a state where it had been pushed to the sidelines.
Now, Captain Amarinder Singh announced plans for his Punjab Lok Congress to work with the BJP. For the former, the motivation is to avenge his removal by the party in general and Navjot Singh Sidhu in particular while for the latter, the BJP would want to consolidate its position after its oldest ally the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) snapped it two-and-half decades association on the farm laws.
The SAD under the Badals lost a lot of support and a perceptible anger against the leadership remains. In order to bridge a gap, the party entered into an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and hoped to challenge the Congress as well as the nascent Aam Aadmi Party.
This is only the second instance when the Modi Government took a step back. In 2015, the government halted the march of repeated ordinance route on land acquisition and six years later on this set of laws also relating to the farm sector.
By announcing the decision to take back the three farm laws on Guru Purab/Guru Nanak Jayanti, the BJP has reached out to the Sikh and Punjabi community on an auspicious day hoping this strategic withdrawal will have a soothing effect in UP and allow the party cut its losses.
— KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. The views expressed are personal.
Read his other columns here
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