Why The BJP Scored A Zero In Punjab: Farmers’ Fury Flattens Party After Boycott Of Candidates

05 Jun 2024 15 min read  Share

The Bharatiya Janata Party had two MPs from Punjab in 2019, besides two won by its alliance partner. Outrage over fielding union minister of state Ajay Mishra Teni, whose son ran over four farmers during the farm protest in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri; anger at the killing of a farm protester in Khanauri in February; and continuing mismanagement of farm protests in Punjab, Haryana and western UP cost the ruling party dearly, including a complete rout in Punjab.

Farmers burn an effigy of the BJP candidate from Sangrur, Arvind Khanna. The BJP did not win a single Lok Sabha seat in Punjab/ ARSHDEEP KAUR

Chandigarh: Days before Punjab went to polls in the last leg of the country’s seven-phase general election on 1 June, Basawa Singh, 54, a resident of Mansa district in southern Punjab, said he felt outraged that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had decided to field  union minister Ajay Mishra Teni, whose son is accused of fatally running over farmers in western Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri in October 2021,  from Kheri constituency in UP. 

“By giving a ticket to Teni, the BJP has shown how much the party adores him and how much it hates the farmers,” Basawa Singh told Article 14.

His brother Pyara Singh succumbed to pneumonia while the family was camped on the outskirts of New Delhi in December 2020, weeks after Indian farmers’ historic siege of the capital city began. “My brother used to bathe early in the mornings,” Basawa Singh said, “and we were staying out on the roads in the cold.” 

His wife Gurdeep Kaur stayed with him at the Tikri protest site too,  for 13 long months, but it was Pyara Singh who had urged the family to travel from their village Dharampura in Punjab’s Mansa district to Delhi, 235 km away. 

The grief at the loss of his brother was matched equally by anger at the BJP government’s approach to the farmers’ continuing protests, he said. 

Those emotions were inflamed further when, in February 2024, tens of thousands of supporters of nearly 80 farm unions from across north and south India were stopped from marching into New Delhi in what was to be a reprisal of the historic yearlong siege of 2020-21. Their demands included fulfilment of the promises that prime minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government had made at the end of that protest, including withdrawal of cases against protesting farmers and justice for victims of the Lakhimpur Kheri incident involving Teni’s son. The other big demand, one that found resonance with voters across Punjab and Haryana, was a law to mandate minimum support price for agricultural commodities.

In February, as farmers were stopped at the Shambhu and Khanauri borders between Punjab and Haryana, entry points into the capital city barricaded and protestors’ vehicles met with metal spikes, Haryana police lobbed tear gas shells and rained batons on the protesting farmers, injuring many grievously. 

One 23-year-old, Shubhkaran Singh, was killed, a painful reminder for Basawa Singh and tens of thousands of farm families in the region of the 700-odd deaths during the 2021 protest. Farm unions carried Shubhkaran Singh’s ashes through multiple states, immersing them in south India. 

These emotions were reflected in the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha election from the state—the party leading the union government for 10 years failed to win a single seat in Punjab. The state had elected two BJP Parliamentarians in 2019, besides another two members of parliament from the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), then a BJP ally.   

In neighbouring Haryana, another nerve centre for the farm movement, the BJP had achieved a clean sweep of all 10 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. As counting concluded on 4 June, it had ceded five of those to the Congress.        

After its alliance with the SAD collapsed at the peak of the farm stir in Delhi, the BJP contested alone in Punjab. 

In scores of villages, BJP candidates trying to visit their constituents were met with black flags, slogans of ‘murdabad’ (down with you), and pointed questions on the party leaders’ labelling of farm protestors as anti-national elements and terrorists. Members of farmer organisations, agricultural workers and trade unionists who had participated in the protest on the outskirts of Delhi and within the state gheraoed  BJP candidates (see here, here and here).

Darshan Pal, president of the Krantikari Kisan Union (KKU), one of the several farmers’ unions that spearheaded protests in 2020 and then once again in 2023 and 2024, said farmer organisations were to be credited for “giving direction to this higher level of consciousness in people, on time”. He said he hoped farm organisations will now also consider the future of the movement. “The people’s organisations should build a third alternative, where farmers, workers and Dalits assert themselves in society,” he said.

‘Why Were We Not Allowed To Enter Delhi?’

Farmers’ continuing protests in Punjab, Haryana and in other pockets across the country are set  against high price variability in crops that are not procured by government agencies, alongside income loss on account of crop loss from floods, drought, groundwater depletion and high temperatures; and cyclical farm distress that has persisted since 2011-12. 

While a NITI Aayog background paper on the proposed ‘doubling of farmers’ incomes’ by 2022 showed that real income of farmers followed a declining trend from 2011-12 to 2015-16, the demonetisation shock in 2016 followed by an effort to clamp down on farm protests in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and in the Punjab-Haryana-Western Uttar Pradesh region were seen by farmers as anti-farmer policies meant to favour corporates. 

A cancer patient, Basawa Singh has been participating in farmer protests for 40 years. He said a guaranteed MSP was important, but even that would not solve the deeper distress in agriculture. “Mada mota saah chalda rahu. (It will be like being on the ventilator),” he said.

Basawa Singh voted in the Bathinda Lok Sabha constituency where the BJP candidate Parampal Kaur Sidhu had faced the ire of the farmers and workers. She took on three-time MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the SAD, the state’s agriculture minister Gurmeet Singh Khuddian of the Aam Aadmi Party, and former MLA Jeet Mohinder Singh Sidhu of the Congress. Gangster-turned-activist Lakha Sidhana also contested from the Bathinda seat. 

Badal won her fourth consecutive term, while Sidhu finished fourth, more than 2,65,000 votes behind the winner.

Basawa Singh who owns 8 acres of land said he was disappointed with all governments. “The price of wheat has been increasing, of oil, of edibles, of everything, but what did the farmers get?” he asked. “Can they tell us how much is spent on the prime minister’s meal, and what do farmers and labourers get?”

Pal Singh (52) of Kulrian village in Mansa district agreed. He belongs to the 80% among farmers who own less than 5 acres of land. 

This election was about his survival, he said, and about the survival of agriculture in the state. “Farm unions should not have suspended the protest in Delhi,” he said, adding that even though a legally mandated MSP will not resolve the farm crisis entirely, it was an important safety valve. “Small farmers will be destroyed early but the time will come for each one of us,” he said. 

Kulrian also falls in the Bathinda constituency, and Pal Singh joined protests against Parampal Kaur Sidhu. 

“She held a meeting on the outskirts of the village in a palace on 9 May,” he said, describing the meeting venue surrounded by barricades and a large posse of policemen, outnumbering the farmers who had gathered there.

Members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) (Ekta) Dakaunda and BKU (Ekta) Ugrahan attended the meeting in order to pose questions. “We broke the barricades from one side but the police stopped us, saying they will let us meet her and ask questions.” Eventually, the candidate left before they were given a chance to meet her.

Their questions included why the protestors were not allowed to enter Delhi, why the union government’s promise to legally guarantee MSP was not fulfilled, and why the BJP had chosen to give an election ticket to Teni.

Incidentally, Teni lost from Kheri in western UP, trailing the Samajwadi Party’s Utkarsh Verma by over 34,000 votes. 

A Tactical Vote Against The BJP

The Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), the federation of unions that steered the historic farmers’ stir on the fringes of Delhi from November 2020 to December 2021 as well as, among other demonstrations, a three-day protest in Lakhimpur Kheri, made a call to its followers ahead of campaigning. “Defeat the BJP, vote for the winning candidate,” said a message received by thousands who attended a ‘mahapanchayat’ or general body meeting in Jagraon, Ludhiana, on 21 May. 

Terming the BJP as anti-democratic and a friend of corporates, the SKM appealed to people to defeat BJP in the general election. 

To identify and vet likely winners, unionists also thoroughly questioned  candidates of other parties, though these were not met with black flags or boycotted. 

Aam Aadmi Party MLA from Nabha in south-west Punjab, Dev Mann, faced tough questions from Dalits and farm labourers in Binaheri village on 21 May when he came to campaign for the AAP candidate from Patiala, Balbir Singh, also the state’s health minister.

The gathered people demanded that village-level issues be resolved, asked for a guaranteed fixed daily wage of Rs 1,000, questioned Mann on the housing problems faced by Dalits, etc.  

The Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a federation of farm unions that spearheaded the Delhi farm protest in 2020-21, organised a mahapanchayat in Jagraon, Ludhiana on 21 May attended by around 50,000 farmers, agricultural labourers and trade in a show of strength against the BJP/ ARSHDEEP KAUR 

Amandeep Kaur Deol, an activist who works with Dalit women in the Malwa region located in the south of Punjab, said, issues of Dalits, especially women, have always remained invisible. “They are treated like a vote bank.” 

This election, Dalit women and their organisations protested against the BJP candidates in Sangrur and Patiala. Preneet Kaur, former Congress MP who joined the BJP last year and was fielded from Patiala, faced lengthy protests.

Deol said BJP candidates could barely visit villages due to the protests.

On 23 May, prime minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Patiala seeking votes in favour of Preneet Kaur. Farm organisations, agricultural workers and Dalit organisations travelled to Patiala from nearby districts to stage a protest against him, while the SKM also gave a call to show black flags to the PM’s convoy. 

However, the city was kept off limits for the protesters and several farm leaders, including president of the Kirti Kisan Union, Nirbhai Singh Dhudike, were detained while the PM was campaigning in Punjab.

Preneet Kaur finished third in Patiala, a seat won by the Congress. 

Although farmer organisations gave a call to defeat the BJP, they did not specifically mobilise votes for a certain party. “Vote for the winning candidate against the BJP,” said Rajinder Deepsinghwala, a leader of the Kirti Kisan Union, explaining their call to people.

Darshan Pal, also a leader of the SKM, said they did not ask for votes to be channelled towards a particular party because the SKM’s constituent unions have varying  political leanings. “We had to teach a lesson to the BJP,” he said.

Voters’ Loss Of Trust In Politicians

In a majority of villages, the farmers’ questions fell on deaf ears. Deol said one local BJP leader, cornered during a TV debate, had no answers to their questions on the farm protests, the Manipur violence, the accusations against BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the rapists in the Bilkis Bano case whose remission had to be annulled by the apex court. “They have nothing to say,” Deol said. “They do not have the moral right to campaign here.”

The BJP’s candidates from Faridkot and Ludhaiana, Hans Raj Hans and Ravneet Singh Bittu (a turncoat from Congress) respectively, faced the harshest protests in villages. 

Hans had to seek forgiveness during a speech.In videos that surfaced on social media, farmers were seen asking Hans about roadblocks on the way to Delhi, about the Lakhimpur Kheri massacre, about Shubhkaran Singh, etc.  

Jassa Kuhadwala, from Kuhadwala village in Faridkot constituency, said some villages saw peaceful protests. “In some villages, Hans was not allowed to enter.” In his own village, they staged a peaceful protest when he visited. “We wanted to ask questions, talk to him, but the police did not allow us anywhere near him.” 

On the other hand, while the Congress tried to woo voters with the promise of a legally guaranteed MSP, among other promises, voters were not convinced. Similarly, the AAP faced tough questions on its promise of a monthly financial assistance of Rs 1,000 for women across Punjab.

Onkar Singh (70), a resident of Agaul village in Patiala, said parties make tall promises in their manifesto. “Even the BJP promised debt relief to farmers, they promised MSP too,” he said. “As soon as the government is formed, they forget the manifesto.”

A member of BKU Rajewal, Onkar Singh spent 13 months at the Delhi border in 2020-21. He, along with other farmers, had questions for BJP candidate Preneet Kaur, but she was not visiting villages. He said the BJP had failed to talk about people’s issues. “We want to defeat the BJP, so that all parties learn a lesson,” he said. 

A Separatist Wins, From Jail

In Khadoor Sahib constituency in north-west Punjab, 60 km east of the border with Pakistan, farmers gheraoed BJP candidate Manjeet Singh Manna on more than one occasion. 

On 26 May, his convoy was gheraoed in three or four villages. Gursahib Singh (35), a member of BKU Kadian, was part of the protests. “He never comes out of his car to listen to our questions,” he said. “Instead, he speeds up.” More than 100-150 police personnel usually surrounded the candidate, he said, and locals would tell the convoy to continue campaigning only if they could answer their questions first. “They did not have any answers,” he said.

Gursahib Singh said the BJP had back-pedalled on a promise to implement a legally guaranteed MSP regime, and that people expect the party to also underhandedly implement the repealed farm laws. “They want to destroy the mandi (market)  system.” He said narcotics were a major issue in his constituency. 

Manna took on Punjab cabinet minister Laljit Singh Bhullar from AAP, Kulbir Singh Zira from the Congress, Virsa Singh Valtoha from the SAD and Amritpal Singh, the pro-Khalistan activist lodged in Assam’s Dibrugarh jail, who contested as an independent. 

Amritpal Singh won with the highest margin among Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats, over 1,97,000 votes ahead of the runner-up. Voters said sympathy for his imprisonment and his crusade against drugs had gained ground in Khadoor Sahib. 

Discontent among Punjab’s voters is not new – AAP won four seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, evidence that people had sought change. In 2022, the state saw change again, after the farm stir in Delhi. AAP promised to address the issues of farmers, including a law for MSP and a new agriculture policy. The party won 92 seats in the assembly election, a first in the history of the state.

“There is no doubt that the farmers’ protest against the three farm laws in 2020-21 brought a political change. The Kisan Andolan was a breakthrough for the political system in Punjab,” said Jagrup Singh Sekhon, former professor of political science at the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. Sekhon said the stir brought a sense of empowerment among men and women “who were earlier fearful of asking questions to an officer, let alone a political leader”.

The 92 seats to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the 2022 assembly elections, Sekhon believes, was a result of this yearning for change after the Delhi protest. Voters were  weary enough of the Akali-Congress regime that they “did not even look at the candidates,” he said. “They wanted change and gave a chance to AAP.”

Other Issues: Jobs, Civil Rights, Distress Emigration

Many voted for AAP, according to Sukhpal Kaur of Kishangarh village in Mansa, because of the party’s promise to alleviate joblessness. She said, however, that she was sceptical about all parties. 

Sukhpal Kaur has two masters’ degrees and has cleared the teaching eligibility test twice, but has not been among the lucky few selected for a government job. “This is the reason why youth are migrating to other countries,” she said.

While the SKM and the SKM (non-political), the two factions of a federation of farm unions, both called on their members to defeat the Modi government, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta) Ugrahan emphasised the strength of the people, civil rights and the right to dissent. 

BKU Ugrahan, Punjab’s largest farm union, organised a rally in Barnala on 26 May at which union leaders called upon people to ‘leave the path of elections and follow the path of struggle.’

On the ground, BKU Ugrahan joined other farm unions to surround BJP candidates in Punjab with questions and black flags. 

BKU (Ekta) Ugrahan, the largest farm organisation in Punjab, held a rally in Barnala on 26 May at which union leaders called upon people to continue to struggle/ ARSHDEEP KAUR

President of BKU Ugrahan, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, stressed that the Delhi stir was won because unions did not let any political party take advantage of the farmers. “Elections will come and go, we do not trust the current government or the one to come,” he said. “We will struggle to safeguard our rights.”

An attendee at the Jagraon mahapanchayat, Chhinder Kaur, a woman in her late fifties, said her former faith in politicians and their promises has eroded. “Sarkar kuch nahin kardi (Governments don’t do anything),” she said, also referring to the widespread substance abuse problem among Punjab’s youth.

Interviewed before polling day, she said she would vote against the BJP. Chhinder Kaur, who belongs to Raikot near Ludhiana, attended protests against BJP candidates with other women. “Someone better should govern,” she said, adding that jobs for youth and the drug menace should be top election issues. 

 “People used to think that political parties rule them, they have now understood who is behind the political parties,” said Rajinder Deepsinghwala, the farm unionist. He said average voters no longer trust politicians because they know that “parties are controlled by corporates,” 

He said the 13-month protest in Delhi was an educational experience for many, enabling them to ask questions and stand up to politicians.

“The farmer protest in Delhi brought a political consciousness among people,” said  Jagrup Singh Sekhon, former professor of political science. “The discontent among people is increasing. Their issues remain unaddressed.” He said issues that people had  raised 10 years ago remained unresolved, and it was the farm stir that brought a “welcome change”.

(Arshdeep Arshi is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh.) 

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