FATEHGARH SAHIB – Amandip Kaur Dholeval got up from a traditional Indian bed and began to speak in front of a small group of men and women sitting cross-legged in a park opposite the white-domed Gurdwara, a place of Sikh worship.
On the sides of the 37-year-old doctor stood a dozen supporters, mostly protesters who last year twitched on the outskirts of the Indian capital and demonstrated against the agriculture laws proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which they feared would reduce their incomes.
“We have already defeated Modi once. Let’s defeat him again. ” Her voice thundered from a loudspeaker attached to the rickshaw, not showing the splendor of an experienced politician, but causing a storm of applause from the audience.
The scene highlighted a change in the electoral landscape in the Indian state of Punjab, where more than 21 million voters voted on Sunday in polls viewed as a barometer of Modi and his party’s popularity ahead of the 2024 general election. Polls will show whether the crest of the year protests that forced Modi to a rare retreat and repel agricultural laws may be enough to prevent his party from infiltrating a state that is considered India’s “grain bowl”.
Political novices, such as Doleval, have high hopes for this formula. They are fighting to turn farmers’ anger into voices, arguing that the new party is the only way to change.
“I am asked,‘ Why are you late? We have been waiting for you, ”said Doleval, who ran a medical camp at one of the protest sites last year. She is now a candidate for Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, a newly formed political party that includes some of the farmers’ unions that organized the protests.
“People now know their rights,” she said.
Modi Bharatiya Janata’s party in September 2020 rammed farm laws through parliament without consultation in September 2020, using its executive powers. His administration called them necessary reforms, however farmers feared that laws would signal the departure of the government from a system in which they sold their crops only in government-sanctioned markets. They worried that it would make them poorer and give away to private corporations.
The laws sparked a year of protests when farmers – most of them Sikhs from Punjab – settled on the outskirts of New Delhi through a harsh winter and a devastating coronavirus outbreak. Modi revoked the laws in November, just three months before the important elections in Punjab and four other states. The election results will be summed up on March 10.
The BJP Modi occupies a relatively small footprint in Punjab, but hopes to form a government there with a regional ally and strengthen its new voter base among farmers, one of India’s largest electoral blocs. The Punjab, where people are deeply proud of the religious syncretism of their state, also represents a test of his party’s Hindu nationalist achievementswhich has flourished in most of northern India since 2014.
Meanwhile, the BJP is campaigning, trying to expose the current congressional government as corrupt. It also makes ambitious promises to create more jobs, provide farm subsidies and free electricity for farmers, and eradicate the drug threat that has plagued the state for years.
The anger against the government, however, is deep.
More than 700 farmers died during the protests after surviving severe cold, record rains and heat, according to Samyukt Kisan Morcha or the United Farmers ‘Front, an umbrella group of farmers’ unions that organized the campaign. Dozens also died from suicide.
But in December last year, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told parliament that his government had no record of the deaths of farmers. This has caused widespread outrage among the families of the deceased, many of whom are small or landless farmers who make up the lowest rung of India’s agricultural community.
“Where did those 700-750 farmers go then? The Modi government is responsible for their deaths, ”said Amarjit Singh, drowning out tears at her family home in the village of Kaler Human, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Amritsar, the state capital.
Singh’s father, Sudagar Singh, died on a hot September day from cardiac arrest, according to his death certificate. At the time of his death, he was accompanied by his friend Charan Singh, the village headman, who said the 72-year-old man fell while returning home after spending several weeks protesting.
“Even though we eventually won, these laws brought only grief into our lives. Do you think that we can forget about it? ” said Singh, pointing to a framed portrait of his friend.
According to the family, Sudagara Singh’s younger brother, a victim of death, fell into depression. He stopped eating and working on his farm. He also died three months later.
In some cases, the Punjab government has announced jobs and funds for the families of the dead, but farmers say the election is an opportunity to turn their anger into significant change.
“That’s why you don’t see the flags of any political party flying over our houses,” said Singh, the village headman. “We don’t trust them anymore.”
Among those seeking to strengthen its political dominance through elections is the Aam Aadmi party, which was founded in 2013 to crack down on corruption and has since ruled Delhi for two consecutive terms.
However, the campaign plan in Punjab is not limited to the anger of farmers. The party hopes to go along the newly emerged fault lines that were blurred during the demonstrations.
At the height of the protest, the rural and urban population of Punjab was supported. Now these protests do not resonate among city voters, who say farmers ’problems should take a back seat as laws are repealed.
“Young people want education, health care, employment and an end to corruption. This is what people want. They want change, ”said businessman Avinash Jolie.
Recently in the afternoon Harbhajan Singh, one of the candidates from the Aam Aadmi party, stopped near a public park and talked to supporters about the destruction of the entrenched political system. A group of young people followed him on motorcycles, waving flags, waving the party’s symbol – a broom – to sweep away corruption.
To loud applause, he concluded his speech by calling on the crowd: “Will you teach a lesson to those leaders who have destroyed this holy land and humiliated our farmers?”
Young people chanted “Yes!”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.