The saffron push in Punjab 

The BJP is trying to garner the support of the Sikhs by recruiting social and political influencers from the community and spreading the message of being pro-farmer in a State driven by agriculture. The Hindu finds mixed feelings about the party’s campaign on the ground

Updated - May 24, 2024 03:00 am IST

Published - May 24, 2024 01:19 am IST

Taranjit Singh Sandhu, the BJP candidate from Amritsar Parliamentary constituency, walking along with his supporters through the streets of Attari village seeking votes during his campaign for the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

Taranjit Singh Sandhu, the BJP candidate from Amritsar Parliamentary constituency, walking along with his supporters through the streets of Attari village seeking votes during his campaign for the upcoming Lok Sabha election. | Photo Credit: special ARRANGEMENT

In the May heat in the land of five rivers, temperatures climb to the mid-40s. That hasn’t deterred campaigning in Punjab, the country’s key grain-producing State, where the seventh and final phase of the Lok Sabha election is slated for June 1. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) going solo in the battle for 13 seats — after the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) broke away from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2020 — the party is attempting to make inroads into Punjab.

In Amritsar, home to Sikhism’s holiest shrine, known worldwide as the Golden Temple, and as the Harmandir Sahib to believers, the BJP has fielded Taranjit Singh Sandhu, a former diplomat and a Jat Sikh, from the community of farmers that form 22% of the State’s population. Making his electoral debut as he campaigns door to door through the narrow streets of the city, Sandhu has many ideas aimed at catalysing social and economic progress.

He’s all about fostering innovation and growth by mentoring and supporting start-up entrepreneurs in a constituency that has an urban-rural mix of people. “Together we can solve our problems of unemployment, drugs, and law and order,” he says, wearing a kurta-pyjama with a saffron sash, his hands joined, as he accepts people’s blessings. Amritsar is Sandhu’s hometown, and he lives in Samundri House, named after his grandfather Teja Singh Samundri, who was at the forefront of Punjab’s gurdwara reform movement.

By fielding Sandhu, who served in the Indian mission in Washington D.C. thrice, the last time as India’s Ambassador to the U.S. until earlier this year, the BJP attempts to present itself as pro-Sikh and pro-farmer. “Despite being an agricultural State, why are there no factories related to agriculture in Punjab? I have an action plan for this to help farmers increase their income,” he says, switching easily between English and Punjabi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays obeisance at the Gurudwara Patna Sahib, in Bihar, on May 13, 2024.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays obeisance at the Gurudwara Patna Sahib, in Bihar, on May 13, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

Political planking

The BJP has not been seen as farmer-friendly after year-long protests on Delhi’s borders against the three farm laws, which were eventually withdrawn in 2021. A second round of protests began earlier this year, on the Punjab-Haryana border, when farmers demanded a revamped minimum support price (MSP) for crops to safeguard against inflation, and a law to protect their livelihood, among other demands.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll in the State, the Congress, the SAD-BJP alliance, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) were involved in a triangular fight. Now, the Congress, the principal Opposition party, is working on an anti-incumbency plank against AAP in the State and the BJP at the Centre. The Congress’s support for the farmer agitations and its election manifesto, which promises to waive the debt of farmers and ensure a legal guarantee for MSP, are key to fighting the poll in the State.

SAD, the century-old regional party, which lost both the 2017 and 2022 Assembly elections, has, through its manifesto, pitched for “Panthic (Sikh path) principles above politics, and Punjab for Punjabis”. SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal says job reservation for Punjabi youth will be implemented, if it comes to power. “Also, the party will safeguard the secular, democratic, and federal character of the Constitution. Minorities and other exploited sections are being systematically targeted on communal grounds.... This needs to stop and Shiromani Akali Dal will treat this as a priority,” he said, while addressing mediapersons, as he released the party’s manifesto.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, another contender, has been seeing a decrease in its vote share over the years in Punjab’s political space. It is banking on its traditional Dalit vote bank by raising issues faced by the Scheduled Castes.

Local problems, national solutions

On May 13, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited one of the five Sikh takhats (places of religious importance) — Takhat Sri Harimandir Ji Patna Sahib — in Bihar’s capital. This visit came amid rising election fever that is seeing farmers’ anger at the party in power at the Centre. Farmer organisations have been confronting BJP leaders as they visit villages for campaigning. AAP is also facing similar confrontations on the ground.

Addressing an election rally in Ambala, Haryana, on May 18, Mr. Modi asserted that the BJP was pro-farmer. “Before 2014, the Congress-led government had purchased grains from farmers at MSP worth only ₹7.5 lakh crore. In contrast, during the 10 years of the Modi government, agricultural produce worth ₹20 lakh crore has been procured from farmers at MSP. Previously, farmers faced delays in receiving payments, but now the funds are directly deposited into their bank accounts,” he said.

The BJP’s pitch is also that the Centre has worked towards securing the interests of Sikhs, and local issues that need the intervention of the Union government can be resolved once the BJP is re-elected at the Centre. Punjab BJP president Sunil Jakhar says, “The issues of the agitating farmers can only be addressed by the next BJP government at the Centre.”

At a public rally in Attari village, situated on the India-Pakistan border, attended by a few hundred people, Sandhu entreats people not to see their local problems in isolation, but to think of solving them at the national level. “We have an international airport, but only 20% of the cargo facility in Amritsar has been used. There’s not a single international cargo flight from Amritsar. I intend to connect with the UAE, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia,” he says, airing his big-picture views.

The BJP candidate acknowledges the impact the halting of cross-border trade with Pakistan has had, since 2019, after the Pulwama attack: “I am in favour of the three-way approach. Firstly, maximising the cargo facility at the city airport. Secondly, transit trade with the Middle East would put Pakistan under pressure to open border trade. The transit of our goods will eventually lead to the regeneration of jobs. The price of fruits and vegetables in the Middle East is much higher, which will benefit farmers here.”

He also references wanting to develop the Patti-Makhu rail link connecting the Mumbai port to Amritsar. Soon, he slips in how Mr. Modi recently went to Dubai to streamline trade between Indian exporters and consumers in the UAE. Sandhu touches on all of Punjab’s problems: drugs, jobs, and civic issues.

Across the road from Sandhu’s rally, Sukhvinder Singh, 36, runs a roadside tyre repair shop. He is amused by the leader’s assurances and says he doesn’t trust politicians, irrespective of which party they are from. “The BJP is not my enemy. They are promising to get trade back on track, which would be good. People have been suffering since 2019,” he says.

“Many people have left the village in search of work and gone to Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Mumbai. If cross-border trade is resumed, I am sure most of them will return. The problem though is that once they are in power, politicians forget their promises,” says Sukhvinder, who earns ₹700-₹800 daily, about half of what he used to earn when bilateral trade took place. He says he has not yet decided who to vote for, but is convinced that if the local MP is of the same party as the one that comes to power at the Centre, there’s a better chance of trade resuming.

In the Anandpur Sahib parliamentary constituency, BJP candidate Subhash Sharma said at a gathering this month that to solve the unemployment problem of local youth, a rail coach factory with the Centre’s assistance would be set up in the constituency. He wants to see Mohali, Chandigarh’s satellite city, develop into an IT hub. “If both these things go through, the youth of Punjab will not have to venture out for employment opportunities,” he said.

Pro-Sikh, pro-Punjab

The SAD, with its right-of-centre political bent, and the BJP, had been partners since 1996. The alliance, where the BJP was considered the ‘junior partner’ by people in Punjab, fell apart in 2020, amid the controversy over the Centre’s now-repealed farm laws. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP had contested three seats — Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, and Gurdaspur — while SAD fielded candidates in the remaining 10. When the results were announced, the BJP and SAD won two seats each, while the Congress secured eight and AAP clinched one.

After parting ways with the SAD, the BJP inducted several Sikhs into the party, including former Chief Minister and Congress leader Amarinder Singh in 2022, and former Congress leader Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi in 2021. Hindus too, including Jakhar — a senior Congress leader — were brought on board.

While in alliance with the SAD, the BJP’s base had largely been urban Punjab. Now, it is attempting to reach out to rural areas, especially to the farming Jat Sikhs, who traditionally supported the Congress and lately AAP, which came to power in the 2022 Assembly election.

At Amritsar’s Chicha village, Balwinder Singh, 36, the sarpanch, sees the BJP’s pro-Sikh approach as a welcome step. “Efforts to come closer to Sikhs should not be criticised. So what if they are attempting to create a bond with us?”

At Attari village, Aman Singh, a porter at the Integrated Check Post on the India-Pakistan border, who has suffered due to loss of work, says, “Even if bilateral trade is not resumed, I see a hope in the BJP. They may find some other means to increase trade.”

A few kilometres away, in Amritsar city, A.P. Singh Chatha, president of the Amritsar Hotel and Restaurant Association, is confident of the BJP making inroads into the constituency, and beyond. “Including Sikhs in the party and giving them tickets are welcome moves, which shows BJP’s pro-Sikh approach. While farmers in rural areas may resent the party, I am sure they will change their mind in time,” he says.

Through its public rallies, the BJP is taking its pro-Sikh message to the people of Punjab. It has highlighted the setting up of a Special Investigation Team to probe the 1984 anti-Sikh riots cases; the initiative taken to start the Kartarpur corridor that connects the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan with the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district; the waiving of Goods and Services Tax from langar (community kitchen); and granting of Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act registration to the Golden Temple, enabling it to receive foreign donations.

In 2022, Mr. Modi declared that December 26 would be observed as ‘Veer Bal Diwas’ to “mark the martyrdom” of Sahibzadas Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, the minor sons of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru. It was yet another attempt to connect with the Sikh community.

Surinder Singh, an assistant professor of Political Science at Panjab University’s Rural Centre at Kauni village, Muktsar district, points out that for the BJP to secure the support of the community, especially the Jat Sikhs and other landholding castes, its leaders will have to go beyond gurdwara visits. “In Punjab, over the years landholdings have been reducing. Most people have been dependent on agriculture and its allied sectors for their sustenance. If the BJP could ensure economic stability, they may find support among members of the rural landholding castes who are mostly Sikh,” he says.

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