The political implications of the exit of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) from the NDA over farm Bills are expected to go beyond Punjab. The issue over which the SAD has sacrificed its long-term friendship with the BJP concerns the interests of farmers across the country. Given the way the NDA government had bulldozed the controversial legislation in Parliament without addressing the genuine concerns of the farming community and State governments, it also has ramifications for the Centre-State relations. The SAD, whose lone representative in the Union Cabinet Harsimrat Badal quit last week, is the third major NDA constituent to pull out of the alliance after the Shiv Sena and the Telugu Desam Party in the last couple of years. The problems between BJP and its oldest ally began much before the farm Bills. The alliance faced several pinpricks in the past few years – from the BJP’s decision not to spare any seats for the SAD in the Delhi Assembly polls to the Akalis’ criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Act. The BJP’s huge victory in the 2019 elections had significantly reduced the bargaining power of its allies. For SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, the 2022 Assembly elections will serve as a do or die battle for political survival. It is not surprising that he has decided to play the farmers’ card to the hilt in a State that is dominated by agriculture.
The usual refrain in the border State is that ‘every Akali is a farmer and every farmer is an Akali at heart’. The Akalis are keen to win back the Jat-Sikh farmers’ votes that the SAD had lost to the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly elections. Since then, the AAP has lost much of its ground. The controversial farm Bills have come as the last straw for the Akalis to call it quits. The Centre’s refusal to give statutory legislative guarantees for Minimum Support Price (MSP) was cited as the main reason for the regional party’s exit from the ruling alliance. Vague oral assurances from some Central ministers that the MSP system will stay have not cut much ice with the opposition, which is justified in insisting that the MSP guarantees must be incorporated in the legislation. While reforms to strengthen the existing mechanisms are necessary, what the Centre is attempting now is to do away with the protective shield of the farmers and the powers and rights of the State governments, thereby undermining the federal spirit. Nearly 86% of farmers in the country own less than 5 acres of land and sell their produce at their nearest mandis run by the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) with a guaranteed MSP.
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