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Crops, Drugs, Votes: India’s breadbasket votes as grand election comes to a close

Punjabis are disillusioned with politicians and their inability to act on the long-running crop pricing demand or the drug epidemic. This is a problem for Modi’s BJP on the last day of the Indian election

June 1 marks the final round of voting in India’s parliamentary elections, which will determine whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi gets a third term. Punjab will vote to fill 13 of the 543 seats nationwide. It is India’s breadbasket and the homeland of Sikhs, a reformist religious group who number 30 million worldwide, of which 24 million are in India.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is for the first time in nearly 30 years not contesting the election in Punjab as part of an alliance. Its former National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a century-old regional party with its roots among rural Sikhs, has decided to go it alone. Its decision was linked to rural Punjabi anger against the central government, which resulted in two farmer protests in 2021 and earlier this year.

The farmers had demanded a guaranteed minimum support price for 23 varieties of crop.

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While the farmers’ unresolved demands are the main issue, there is a second matter bubbling beneath the surface. Punjabis are greatly disillusioned with politicians over their perceived inaction in a drug addiction epidemic that has taken hold, claiming 266 lives between 2020 and 2023.

Artists dance during a roadshow of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party president Sukhbir Singh Badal (not pictured) and their election candidate Anil Joshi (not pictured) in Amritsar on May 29, 2024, ahead of the seventh and final phase of voting in India’s general election.

©  Narinder NANU / AFP

Drug addiction in Punjab

Take Jaspreet Kaur (60), whose husband is a farmer and who lost her 30-year-old son last year to a drug overdose. 

“Whoever comes to power promises to eradicate drug addiction among young people, but when they come to power no action is taken,” Kaur tells RT. “I have lost my son and many others have faced this tragedy. We have little hope.”

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For her and others like her, drug overdoses are a priority issue. “There is a distress among farmers and families whose young children are trapped in drugs,” she says. “We are fed up.”

It is a double tragedy, as the family’s other worry is farming. Her husband spent most of his life cultivating wheat and paddy on their four-acre farm, but making ends meet is now a struggle.

“The yield is giving us less profit. Debt is increasing and we don’t know how to cope with loss and the distress of livelihood,” says Kaur. Agriculture has become risky and unprofitable for most families in Punjab, she says.

Despite ruling India with a majority since 2014, the BJP has found it a challenge to make inroads into Punjab’s competitive political landscape, where it could only win two seats in the last Lok Sabha election in 2019, and only because it was in alliance with the SAD

Students performing street play on the theme of Drug De-Addiction at student centre Panjab University on September 20, 2022 in Chandigarh, India.

©  Ravi Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

No electoral alliance with Akali Dal

Without the SAD, the BJP is alone in bearing the brunt of the farmers’ deep anger. The farmers’ unions have disrupted the BJP’s campaign by blocking its candidates from entering villages and calling for a boycott. This is likely to hurt the party’s rural outreach, which is critical to its solo campaign.

“There is a lot of resentment among farmers and this will be displayed when people vote,” says Jagmeet Sandhu (45), a farmer from Bathinda, reflecting the discontent.

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The state is governed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which came to power with a thumping majority in 2022. But it also faces a test in this election due to discontent over broken election promises and rising drug addiction.

Despite being members of the national opposition I.N.D.I.A. (Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance) bloc, the AAP and the Congress party are rivals in Punjab. The AAP claims to have done a lot in the past two years but not everyone is happy with their performance.

“Our government has done a great job in the past two years,” says Malvinder Singh Kang, AAP candidate from the Anandpur Sahib constituency. “We have created 43,000 jobs and, importantly, the jobs were awarded based on merit. We have provided free power to people.”

Punjabi chief minister Bhagwant Mann has led the AAP’s campaign and is seeking public sympathy following the arrest of AAP supremo and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. The party has accused the Modi government of undermining democracy and the constitution. 

Chief minister of the capital Delhi and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal (3R) and Punjab’s chief minister Bhagwant Mann (3L) pay respect at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on May 16, 2024, ahead of the fifth phase of voting in India’s general election.

©  Narinder NANU / AFP

Congress capitalizing on two anti-incumbencies 

Experts say the Congress is in a strong position, capitalizing on anti-incumbency against both the AAP in the state and the BJP in New Delhi. The party supported the farmers’ agitation in 2020 and the ongoing protests at the Punjab-Haryana borders, which form a crucial part of its strategy.

“The BJP government has endangered the foundation of our constitution,” Congress leader Vijay Inder Singla says. “The Congress is fighting hard to save democracy and secularism and thus people should vote for it to dethrone the BJP-led central government.”

In Amritsar last week, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi promised farmers that his party would waive their debt. The Congress has also promised to provide a legal guarantee for minimum support prices (MSP) and aims to build on its 2019 performance, when it won eight seats. 

“It will not be a one-time thing as the party will study the financial situation of farmers,” Gandhi said, lashing out at the BJP for doing nothing for farmers in the past ten years. “Whenever farmers of this country require debt waiver, the INDIA bloc government will waive it. Not just once, but many times.”

Indian National Congress (INC) party leader Rahul Gandhi addresses his supporters during an election rally in Amritsar on May 25, 2024, amid the country’s ongoing general election.

©  Narinder NANU / AFP

The SAD is striving to regain its political relevance after crushing defeats in the 2017 and 2022 state legislature elections. So it is focusing on its commitment to Sikh principles and a ‘pro-Punjab’ stance. 

“On getting the people’s mandate, we would introduce a law to ensure that jobs in Punjab would be reserved for Punjabi youth only,” says SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal. This is just one of many pro-Punjab promises.

Modi’s long-term strategy 

The BJP’s risk in going alone is also an attempt to expand its electoral footprint beyond Hindu-dominated urban pockets.

“For every Indian, Punjab is a crucial state with a history of rich contribution to national development,” Modi said in a recent interview. “Thus, it is not possible for our party to remain silent while the people of the state are unhappy. It is incumbent upon us to work even harder and ensure the people of the state are not unhappy.”

The prime minister said the people of Punjab were so disillusioned in 2022 that they gave a mandate to AAP but this has only made things worse.

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“We are going to the people with our vision and good governance track record. We are going to the people with a single aim- the welfare of Punjab,” Modi said.

Kiranjit Kaur, an Chandigarh-based activist working on farmer suicides, tells RT that there would be multiple issues in the minds of voters on June 1.

“The farm crisis is still an ongoing issue and is big,” she says, adding that the second big issue is drugs.

“We have seen many governments in the past promising that they will end the menace in months but that has not happened and people are angry. So many young people are dying of drug overdoses,” she says.

“The election mindset in Punjab is different and it’s tough to say what voters are up to,” she says. “This time they will vote wisely and even independent candidates are strong in places. AAP is not so much a favorite. People are angry over what has happened the last five months. This could benefit the Congress.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) greets his supporters during an election campaign rally, in Jalandhar on May 24, 2024, on the eve of the sixth phase of voting in India’s general election.

©  Shammi MEHRA / AFP

Gurshamshair Singh, a Punjab-based journalist and analyst, echoes similar views. He says Punjab elections hold significance as the “Modi magic did not work in the state during the last ten years.”

“Punjab’s election is important because it’s a border state, where minority Sikhs are the majority,” Singh says. “It is for the first time a four-cornered contest. There are some independent candidates enjoying support, and they include Sikh separatist leaders.”

He adds that the BJP is facing opposition wherever they campaign.

“This is an agrarian state so farmers’ opinions matter,” Singh says. “In cities, there is also a non-Sikh population that supports the BJP. Earlier it was in an alliance with the SAD, but its chances of electoral success seem thin. At least it is getting candidates and fighting on its own. It’s focussing on consolidating its [position] in Punjab.”

Singh says the Congress is the choice of all anti-Modi segments.

“The anti-Modi vote would be shared partially between the Congress and independent leaders. The AAP is hoping they will reap electoral dividends on freebies like free electricity.”

May 31, 2024 at 10:01AM

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