Voters in the northern Indian state of Punjab have cast their ballot in the state assembly elections seen as a barometer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party’s popularity ahead of general elections in 2024.
About 68 percent of the 21 million registered voters cast their ballot on Sunday, according to local media reports.
Punjab is holding one of the most intensely-contested elections as analysts believe the results will reflect whether Modi has been able to neutralise the resentment of Sikh farmers by repealing the contentious farm laws that led to a more than year-long protest by the farmer groups.
India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, also voted in the third phase of the seven-phase elections. The BJP, which governs the state of 200 million people, faces a stiff challenge from the main opposition Samajwadi Party.
Farmers form one of the largest voting blocs in India.
“It’s the first elections in Punjab since the year-long farms protests against legislation, which they feared would leave them at the mercy of large corporations,” said Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam.
“The welfare of farmers is always a big issue in the state known as India’s bread-basket,” she said.
Pitched against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are the incumbent Congress party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Aam Admi Party and Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, a newly formed political party.
The results will be announced on March 10.
Amandeep Kaur Dholewal, who ran a medical camp at one of the protest sites last year, is a candidate for the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha or the United Farmers Front, the umbrella group of farm unions that organised the agitation.
“People are asking me, ‘Why are you late? We were waiting for you,’” Dholewal told Associated Press. “People know their rights now,” the 37-year-old doctor added.
The polls will indicate whether riding the crest of the yearlong protests that forced Modi to make a rare retreat and repeal the farm laws could be enough to prevent his party from making inroads in a state considered the “grain bowl” of India.
Modi’s BJP rammed the farm laws through Parliament without consultation in September 2020, using its executive powers. His administration billed them as necessary reforms, but farmers feared the laws signaled the government was moving away from a system in which they sold their harvest only in government-sanctioned marketplaces. They worried this would leave them poorer and at the mercy of private corporations.
The laws triggered a year of protests as farmers — most of them Sikhs from Punjab state — camped on the outskirts of New Delhi through a harsh winter and devastating coronavirus surge. Modi withdrew the laws in November, just three months ahead of the crucial polls in Punjab and four other states.
Modi’s BJP has a relatively small footprint in Punjab but hopes to form a government there with a regional ally and strengthen its fledgling voter base among farmers, one of the largest voting blocs in India. Punjab, where people are deeply proud of their state’s religious syncretism, also represents a test for his party’s Hindu nationalist reach, which has flourished in most of northern India since 2014.
Meanwhile, the BJP is running its campaign by trying to frame the incumbent Congress party state government as corrupt. It is also making grand promises to create more jobs, provide farm subsidies and free electricity for farmers, and eradicate the drug menace that has ailed the state for years.
The anger against the government, however, runs deep.
More than 700 farmers died during the protests as they weathered brutal cold, record rains and sweltering heat, according to Samyukt Kisan Morcha. Dozens also died by suicide.
Among those seeking to consolidate their political dominance through the election is the Aam Aadmi Party, which was formed in 2013 to eliminate corruption and has since ruled Delhi for two consecutive terms.
Its campaign plan in Punjab, however, is not limited to just the farmers’ anger. The party hopes to ride on reemerged fault lines that were blurred during the demonstrations.
At its peak, the protest drew support from Punjab’s rural and urban populations. Now, those protests find very little resonance among city voters who say the farmers’ issues should take a backseat since the laws have been withdrawn.
“The youth want education, health, employment and an end to corruption. That’s what people want. They want a change,” said Avinash Jolly, a businessman.
On a recent afternoon, Harbhajan Singh, one of the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidates, stopped near a public park and talked to supporters about chipping away at the entrenched political system. A band of young men followed him on motorbikes waving flags brandishing the party symbol – a broom to sweep out corruption.
To resounding applause, he ended his speech with a call to the crowd: “Will you teach a lesson to those leaders who have ruined this sacred land and humiliated our farmers?”
The young men, in unison, chanted “Yes!”