The BJP’s loss in the civic elections in Punjab is reflective of a deeper malaise
Sometimes, a defeat is more significant than a victory. The ruling Congress party’s emphatic win in the recent civic elections in Punjab is amplified by the poor performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its former ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The results will inevitably be read as an outcome of the ongoing farmers’ agitation. The Centre’s new farm laws, and its attitude towards the farmers who have been protesting for months against the laws, were prominently raised by the Congress against the BJP during the canvassing. The BJP tried to defend the farm laws but its leaders and workers faced heavy backlash on the ground, and it is clear that the party failed to convince the voters. The Congress, which may be on the back foot for unkept election promises of 2017, could find popular approval largely due to the support it extended to the farmers. The BJP’s oldest alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal’s decision to end its coalition with the National Democratic Alliance amid the farmers’ protests was an attempt to regain its alienated voter base. The result, however, makes it clear that it may not be an easy task ahead of the Assembly elections, due in early 2022, for the BJP or SAD. And the political ripples of the farm agitation are spreading beyond Punjab.
The Centre’s hope that the agitating farmers will disperse out of fatigue, and in the face of police measures, appears to have been too optimistic. The Delhi police miserably failed to prevent violence by certain farmer groups on Republic Day and later started haunting civil society activists on flimsy grounds. Criminalising dissent has been a familiar component of the BJP toolkit, but the endurance of that strategy is on test as political costs accrue for the party. The Jannayak Janta Party, which counts the Jat community as its support base, and the BJP share power in Haryana after bitterly fighting each other in elections; in western Uttar Pradesh, a sharp polarisation on religious lines had brought sections of the community closer to the party in recent years. The BJP raised a new band of leaders from the community based entirely on vituperative communal rhetoric. With the farming community now turning against the BJP, and even reaching out to Muslims, the formulaic toolkit of cow and communalism has been interrupted. The BJP called a meeting of Jat leaders in Delhi to mend the situation. If the situation continues, the BJP could face reverses in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. It will be able to recover lost ground only by being more accommodative to the livelihood concerns of the Jat community and not by heightening the polarising rhetoric.