Lure of power amid farm protests: Dushyant Chautala may lie low and wait

The JJP has apologised for the baton charge by police during a farmer protest in Kurukshetra Photo: Twitter (@CaptAjayYadav)
From the point of view of Congress leader and former Chief Minister of Haryana Bhupinder Singh Hooda the best thing that could have happened was the set of three Ordinances — The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020. The Bills related to the first two were passed by the Rajya Sabha on Sunday, while the third is set to clear the House hurdle soon. Beset with a second state-level electoral defeat in a row, rapidly losing Jat support, his core voter constituency, to Dushyant Singh Chautala’s Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), fighting off corruption charges, and facing pushback from factions in the Haryana Congress, Hooda has been trying to claw back political ground for months now. Haryana farmer fears and insecurities about the reform represent a comeback opportunity for him.

But the beneficiary of Hooda’s misfortunes, Dushyant Chautala, of the hoary Devi Lal clan which represents the quintessential Jat in Haryana, is now facing a credibility problem. Dushyant Chautala contested the 2014 election but stormed into Haryana politics after the impressive showing in the 2019 Assembly election, reviving and appropriating the remains of the Indian National Lok Dal. When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not cross 40 seats in a House of 90, it turned to Chautala; he had won 10 seats. He drove a hard bargain, making it clear he could also go to the Congress, which had 31 seats.
However, the BJP snaffled him before that: And it is the widely perceived anti-Jat BJP (where M L Khattar, a non-Jat who became chief minister in 2014 and 2019 on the back of a rainbow coalition of non-Jat castes) to which Chautala offered support. He was made deputy chief minister. But his party feels he has never been given the honour and prestige that he — and the Jats, by extension — deserve.

That was the state of play, until the Ordinances, billed as big reforms for embattled farmers seeking a fair price for their produce, were announced. In June, when Cabinet cleared the Ordinances, farmers were busy and preoccupied, though apprehensions and fears had begun to be voiced even then. But when the law was on the verge of becoming a reality, farmers — mostly in Punjab but also in Haryana —erupted. The Haryana government responded the only way it knows how: By baton-charging a big meeting of farmers, mostly Jats, in Kurukshetra when they began vandalising government property. Although Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij claimed in a tweet that “no lathicharge took place anywhere” and “there is no MLR (medico-legal report) and nobody received injuries. No orders were passed to use force on farmers”, this was contested by MPs of his own party.

The BJP’s Lok Sabha MPs from Bhiwani-Mahendragarh and Hisar, Dharambir Singh and Brijendra Singh, representing constituencies dominated by farming communities virtually said they did not believe the state home minister: “…The action of resorting to a lathicharge on the farmers without listening to their voice in a democratic country is condemnable”, Dharambir posted on Twitter: “It is the duty of the government to talk to the farmers”.

If Dushyant had been a Jat leader of the calibre of Chaudhary Charan Singh or Devi Lal, he might have succeeded in reassuring the community. But the issue has snowballed and is rolling in a different direction altogether: Now at stake is not merely the interests of farmers but also the prestige of the Jat community, which has been out of the power matrix for more than five years. Jats are around 25 per cent of Haryana’s population and 75 per cent are farmers, according to a 2017 Haryana Backward Castes Commission report.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurances, few Haryana farmers believe the Union and state governments when they say that procurement by the government under the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system will continue, regardless of the new laws. And with Union minister Harsimrat Badal’s resignation on the issue of farm reform, the pressure is on Dushyant.

Former Planning Commission member and renowned agriculture economist Som Pal said: “Yes, it is true the farmers of Haryana are afraid that if the government does not procure at a guaranteed price, they will be at the mercy of market forces and may not get a fair price for their produce. But the proof of the pudding is in its eating. Procurement for paddy will start on September 25. I am sure, alerted by the farmers’ apprehensions, the state and Union government will make even better procurement arrangements than before. There’s hardly a week left now: And once farmers (in Haryana) are satisfied that should all else fail, the government is still there to buy their produce, the campaign (against the agri reform) will end in a whimper”.

This is one reason why Dushyant is unlikely to adopt the stratagem of the Shiromani Akali Dal and quit his position: All he has to do is lie low and wait, until September 23.

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