By SHEIKH SAALIQ – Associated Press
FATEHGARH SAHIB, India (AP) — Amandeep Kaur Dholewal stood up from a traditional Indian crib and began speaking to a small gathering of men and women sitting cross-legged in a park in front of a domed gurdwara white, a place of worship for Sikhs.
The 37-year-old doctor was surrounded by a dozen supporters, mostly from protesters who last year, squatting outside the Indian capital and demonstrated against agricultural laws imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which they feared would decimate their income.
“We have already beaten Modi once. Let’s beat him again. His voice rang out from a loudspeaker attached to an auto rickshaw, showing none of the flamboyance of a seasoned politician but drawing thunderous applause from the audience.
The scene underscored the changing electoral landscape in the Indian state of Punjab, where more than 21 million voters cast their ballots on Sunday in polls seen as a barometer of Modi and his party’s popularity ahead of the general election in 2024. Polls will show whether the peak constituency of the year protests that forced Modi into a rare retreat and pushing back on farm laws might be enough to prevent his party from making inroads into a state considered India’s “breadbasket”.
People also read…
Political newbies like Dholewal pin their hopes on this very formula. They are vying to convert farmers’ anger into votes, arguing that a new party is the only way to change.
“People ask me, ‘Why are you late? We were waiting for you,'” said Dholewal, who led a medical camp at one of the protest sites last year. She is now a candidate for Sanyukt Samaj Morcha , a newly created political party that includes some of the agricultural unions that organized the protests.
“People know their rights now,” she said.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party pushed the farm laws through parliament without consultation in September 2020, using its executive powers. His administration presented them as necessary reforms, but farmers feared the laws would signal the government was moving away of a system in which they only sold their harvest in government-sanctioned markets. They feared it would leave them poorer and at the mercy of private corporations.
The laws sparked a year of protests as farmers – mostly Sikhs from the state of Punjab – camped out on the outskirts of New Delhi during a harsh winter and a devastating outbreak of coronavirus. Fashion removed the laws in November, just three months before crucial polls in Punjab and four other states. Election results will be announced on March 10.
Modi’s BJP has a relatively small footprint in Punjab, but hopes to form a government there with a regional ally and bolster its nascent electoral base among farmers, one of the largest electoral blocs in India. Punjab, where people are deeply proud of their state’s religious syncretism, also represents a test for his party’s Hindu nationalist reachwhich has flourished across most of northern India since 2014.
Meanwhile, the BJP is campaigning trying to portray the outgoing Congress party government as corrupt. He also makes big promises to create more jobs, provide agricultural subsidies and free electricity to farmers, and eradicate the drug menace that has plagued the state for years.
The anger against the government, however, runs deep.
More than 700 farmers died during the protests as they faced brutal cold, record rains and sweltering heat, according to Samyukt Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers Front, the umbrella group of farm unions that organized the unrest. Dozens also died by suicide.
But in December last year, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told parliament his government had no record of the farmers’ deaths. This caused widespread outrage among the families of those who died, many of whom are small or landless farmers who make up the lowest echelon of India’s farming community.
“Where have these 700 to 750 farmers gone? The Modi government is responsible for their deaths,” said Amarjeet Singh, choking back tears at his family home in Kaler Ghuman village, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Amritsar, the state capital.
Singh’s father, Sudagar Singh, died on a sweltering September afternoon from cardiac arrest, according to his death certificate. At the time of his death he was accompanied by his friend Charan Singh, the village chief, who said the 72-year-old collapsed on his way home after spending weeks at the protests.
“Even though we won in the end, these laws only brought misery to our lives. Do you think we would forget that? Singh said, pointing to a framed portrait of his friend.
Marked by death, Sudagar Singh’s younger brother fell into depression, the family said. He stopped eating and working on his farm. Three months later, he too died.
In some cases, the Punjab government has announced jobs and funds for the families of those who have died, but farmers say the election is an opportunity to turn their anger into meaningful change.
“That’s why you don’t see flags of any political party flying above our houses,” said Singh, the village chief. “We don’t trust them anymore.
Among those seeking to cement their political dominance through elections is the Aam Aadmi party, which was formed in 2013 to stamp out corruption and has since ruled Delhi for two consecutive terms.
His campaign plan in Punjab is not limited to angering farmers, however. The party hopes to ride on reappearing fault lines that have blurred during the protests.
At its peak, the protest drew support from both rural and urban populations in Punjab. Now those protests find very little resonance among city voters who say farmers’ issues should take a back seat since the laws were withdrawn.
“Young people want education, health, jobs and an end to corruption. That’s what people want. They want a change,” said Avinash Jolly, a businessman.
One recent afternoon, Harbhajan Singh, one of the candidates for the Aam Aadmi party, stopped near a public park and spoke to supporters about the decay of the entrenched political system. A gang of young men followed him on motorbikes waving flags waving the party symbol – a broom to sweep away corruption.
To resounding applause, he ended his speech with a call to the crowd: “Do you want to teach a lesson to these leaders who have ruined this sacred land and humiliated our farmers?
The young men, in unison, chanted “Yes!”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.