Haryana: BJP's coalition partner walks a tightrope on farmers' protest

Farmers from Haryana gather at Singhu border near Delhi on Saturday as they join protests against laws liberalising agricultural markets. (PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist)

Farmers in Haryana didn't go as far as those in neighbouring Punjab, but the protests over the Centre's new agri-marketing laws kept politics on the boil in this state as well in the closing months of the year.

The year was also marked by a new Haryanvis First policy on jobs, a law in the making against the so-called love jihad and a tussle between the chief minister and the home minister over a coveted police department.

All this against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which tested Haryana as it did the rest of the country.

Months before the current agitation over the Centre's three new farm laws erupted, the opposition Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal had already begun raising farmers' issues in the state.

The two parties complained about alleged mismanagement in wheat procurement and slammed a new crop diversification scheme, saying farmers were being forced to give up paddy cultivation.

And when criticism over the new laws sharpened, the Jannayak Janta Party -- a part of the BJP-led ruling coalition in the state -- felt the heat. Over the weeks, the opposition accused the new party of ignoring farmers' concern just to hang on to power in Haryana.

At least half of the JJP's own 10 MLAs too have made statements supporting the protesters, defying the official coalition line that the laws are for the farmers' own good.

Farmers protested even in JJP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala's Uchana constituency, digging up a part of a temporary helipad where they expected his chopper to land.

Chautala has been forced to do a tightrope walk -- backing the BJP government's laws but conceding that some amendments are needed. Urging farmers not to walk out of negotiations with the Centre, he has assured that the minimum support price system for their crops will continue in Haryana.

I will quit the government, if the MSP goes, he said.

Chautala's outfit has fulfilled an election promise in another sector. Earlier this year, the BJP-JJP government brought a Bill proposing 75 per cent reservation in the private sector to job seekers from within the state. The new quota applies to jobs that offer a salary of less than Rs 50,000 a month.

Ironically, a JJP MLA was the one who sounded a note of caution. Ram Kumar Gautam said the move will set a wrong precedent -- other states may well decide to stop hiring people from Haryana, if Haryana stops hiring their people.

Another Bill passed bny the assembly proposed giving rural voters the right to cut short the terms of sarpanchs and other panchayat members if they don't perform. Apart from this right to recall, the new law would fix a 50 per cent quota for women in panchayat bodies.

The murder of a 21-year-old college student, caught on video in Ballabhgarh, triggered some tough talk by Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij on bringing a law to check love jihad, a reference to right-wing allegations that Hindu women are being lured or coerced into marriages by Muslim men seeking to convert them.

A similar allegation was made by the dead woman's family.

Vij has set up a three-member committee to draft legislation against religious conversion through coercion or fraud. It will study laws in other states, the minister said.

Earlier in the year, the home minister was involved in an unseemly tussle over the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), usually seen as part of the police force, which is under him. But Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had kept it for himself.

Ultimately, the six-time MLA backed down. I have always maintained that the chief minister is supreme and he can take away or divide any department, he said.

Vij is also the state's health minister, which pitched him in the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.

A 29-year-old woman from Gurgaon district was the first person in Haryana to test positive for the virus. By the year-end, about 2.6 lakh cases and 2,800 deaths were recorded. As migrant workers headed home after the lockdown, the state lost about Rs 4,600 crore in revenue in the first few months alone.

Governor Satyadeo Narain Arya, CM Khattar, Deputy CM Chautala and assembly Speaker Gian Chand Gupta were among the politicians who tested positive. Vij too caught the virus, ironically after offering himself as a volunteer for the trial for the indigenous Covaxin.

For the Congress, the shot in the arm came in November when its Indu Raj Narwal defeated BJP's wrestler-turned politician Yogeshwar Dutt in Sonipat's Baroda, retaining the seat for the opposition party.

Haryana's claim on river water through Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal also figured briefly in 2020.

Recently, Haryana BJP activists sat on dharnas to highlight the issue, which is yet to be settled despite the Supreme Court's intervention. But farmers' bodies termed the BJP demonstrations a ploy to deflect attention from their own cause

In August, Khattar, his Punjab counterpart Amarinder Singh and Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had discussed the matter through video conference. Their meeting remained inconclusive with Singh, indirectly hinting that Khalistani elements will take advantage if Punjab gives in to the neighbour's demand.

Punjab will burn, Singh had warned.

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