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Farmers’ anger will test Modi as ‘grain bowl’ votes in India

FATEHGARH SAHIB, India – Amandeep Kaur Dholewal got up from a traditional Indian cot and began talking to a small gathering of men and women sitting cross-legged in a park in front of a white-domed gurdwara , a place of worship for Sikhs.

The 37-year-old doctor was flanked by a dozen of her supporters, mostly among protesters who took refuge outside the Indian capital last year and demonstrated against the now repealed controversial farm laws.

If elected, Dholewal told the crowd that she would tirelessly fight for farmers’ rights.

His group of three cars then moved on to another village along narrow, dusty roads that passed through thick fields of wheat and mustard that stretched into the distance. There, Dholewal repeated a similar message.

“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.

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 party implemented the controversial farm laws in September 2020 using its executive powers and without any consultation in parliament. His administration touted them as necessary reforms, but farmers feared the laws would signal the government was moving away from a system in which they sold their crop only 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 angry 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. In a major U-turn, Modi withdrew the laws a year later in November, just three months before crucial polls in Punjab and four other states. Election results will be announced on March 10.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party 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 India’s largest electoral blocs. Punjab, where people take deep pride in their state’s religious syncretism, also represents a test for the Hindu nationalist reach of his party, which has flourished across much of northern India since 2014.

Meanwhile, Modi’s party 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.

Experts say the moves are meant to appease angry farmers and the election was a key reason behind Modi’s sudden decision to withdraw the laws.

This anger, 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 has caused widespread anger among the families of the deceased, many of whom are small or landless farmers who make up the lowest rung 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 sudden 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 in 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.

Scarred 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 root 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.

The Aam Aadmi party hopes to capitalize on this sentiment.

On a recent afternoon, Harbhajan Singh, one of the party candidates from Jandiala constituency, got into a car during a door-to-door campaign. A gang of young men followed him on motorbikes waving flags waving the party symbol – a broom to sweep away corruption.

Singh stopped near a public park and spoke to his supporters about undermining the entrenched political system.

To resounding applause, he ended his speech with a call to the people in 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.

ABC News

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