Farmers’ protest gives Congress another shot at revival, but party has to show consistency, tenacity

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The farmers’ protests in Delhi have given a massive opportunity to Opposition parties to up the ante against the Centre on a topic of national importance.

The Centre is presently holding talks with the agitators and discussing the three farm laws threadbare — unusual for a government that routinely brands dissenting voices as unpatriotic and rarely engages with them.

The Congress has sensed the opportunity and expressed its “whole-hearted support” to the Bharat Bandh called on 8 December by farmer unions. The key question, however, is whether the Congress will be able to leverage its support for agitating farmers in order to make political gains.

Congress’ stance on farm laws

The Congress had strongly opposed the farm Bills when they were being discussed in the Parliament. However, it had boycotted the Rajya Sabha when one of the laws — the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act — was passed. The other two Bills were passed by voice vote in the Rajya Sabha.

The Congress also hit the streets in order to oppose the Bill, before the current agitation broke out. In the first week of October, Rahul Gandhi led three tractor rallies in Punjab against the new laws. Senior party leaders in the state, including Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, AICC general secretary in-charge of Punjab affairs, Harish Rawat, Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar, Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal and other leaders had joined him.

On the final day of the rallies, Rahul dared Modi to come to the state and stand with farmers if these new legislations were in the interest of the farming community.

Calling the existing food security system a “fortress” for farmers, Rahul said it needed improvement and reforms, which the Congress manifesto had also promised, but the new laws will destroy it.

Later, addressing a rally in Pehowa, Kurukshetra, Rahul asserted that his party will not back down an inch on its stand. He said mandis give employment to so many people, and if these are finished with these laws, lakhs will be rendered jobless.

Thus, it is clear that the Congress senses that the present anger of farmers can be channelised to push the BJP into a corner.

However, the challenge for the grand old party will be reconciling its present position with its earlier contradictory stands on the relevant issues.

To illustrate, the Congress in its 2019 manifesto for the Lok Sabha election, had promised to replace the Act by an enabling law that can be invoked only in the case of emergencies. The party had also promised to repeal the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) Act. The possible dismantling of the APMC system is precisely the fear that protesting farmers have expressed in response to the new laws.

On this contradiction, an article in The Print quoted Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill as saying, “The Congress manifesto never promoted the idea of abolition of the Minimum Support Price (MSP), unlike the present bills passed by the BJP.”

He was further reported to have said, “The Congress manifesto never contained any clause which would open a window of price exploitation by private entities.”

Effect of past agitations

This is not the first time that the Congress party has sought to garner political capital out for farmers’ protest. The most prominent example of the party benefiting from farmers’ agitations against the BJP was during the 2018 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. While the Congress announced loan waivers in all states immediately after the election results, the implementation left much to be desired.

In fact, in Madhya Pradesh, a state minister in the erstwhile Congress government even apologised for ‘delay and difficulties‘ in ensuring the waivers. The minister Govind Singh, had apologised for not delivering on ‘Rahul Gandhi’s promise’, but blamed the previous BJP government for leaving the state with huge debts.

While the Congress won in Madhya Pradesh in 2018, the party had lost in Mandsaur constituency, which was the epicentre of the farm protests. Mandsaur was also the place where six farmers had died in police firing in 2017.

In Punjab too, where polls are slated to be held in 2022, the Congress will be hoping to beat anti-incumbency through its strident position in favour of the protesting farmers. However, the Punjab election will give little idea of how the Congress stacks up against the BJP on a national scale, since the saffron party has little presence in the state.

What is certain is that for the Congress to garner long-term gains from the ongoing protest, it will have to convert the agitation into a wider struggle for better rural incomes

With inputs from PTI

December 08, 2020 at 03:21PM

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