Punjab elections: Border state braces for close fight in a 5-cornered contest
Battle lines have been clearly drawn for a no-holds-barred five-cornered election contest in Punjab, in which there are no clear favourites.
For a state known for its two-horse electoral race for nearly seven decades,21.1 million voters in Punjab will be spoilt for choice like never before when they exercise their franchise on February 14.
Battle lines have been clearly drawn for a no-holds-barred five-cornered contest , in which there are no clear favourites. Six weeks before the D-day, the electoral landscape is still bereft of a discernible groundswell for or against any of the key players. Yet, straws in the wind are not lost on political pundits who read them as signs of yearning for change.
What is clear is that the border state is bracing for one of the most closely fought contests in the 16th Vidhan Sabha since 1966, when the state’s geographical and political map was last redrawn after reorganization.
In the fray for 117 seats are three solo parties – the ruling Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, and two alliances, the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party (SAD-BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-Punjab Lok Congress (BJP-PLC).
The multiplicity of players has challenged the dominance of the two traditional rivals, the Congress and the SAD, which have ruled the state by turns all these years. A resurgent AAP and an ambitious BJP, contesting all seats for the first time in last 24 years have altered the poll dynamics.
Then there are the farmer organisations, triumphant after the repeal of three farm laws, and which have thrown their hat in the ring under an umbrella grouping of Samyukt Samaj Morcha – a wild card that may cut into the peasantry support base of Akalis and Congress in 55 predominantly rural segments.
The Congress, which coasted to an unprecedented landslide win of two-thirds majority in 2017, is finding the going tough, weighed down as much by anti-incumbency as by internal squabbles. Clouding the party’s bid for second coming is an open duel for chief ministerial face.
The party high command’s hint that it would contest elections under a collective leadership hasn’t stopped a mercurial state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu from upping the ante on his barely masked ambition of being chief minister.
Sidhu’s hardball tactics hardly sits well with the party’s electoral calculations hinged on Charanjit Singh Channi’s elevation as the first scheduled caste chief minister of a state with 32% SC population, the highest in the country. The Congress sees Channi as a trump card to garner a big chunk of SC votes that could turn its electoral fortunes in at least 40 constituencies, mostly in the Doaba region.
But, the Channi-Sidhu tussle, set to sharpen over ticketing, may play spoilsport. “Only the Congress can defeat the Congress,” said Sidhu, alluding to intraparty feud that may escalate in case he is not allowed his way.
Things do not look particulary rosy for other traditional player, SAD, which created history with two successive wins and ruled for 10 years till 2017, when it suffered its worst-ever electoral defeat and was relegated to third position in the Vidhan Sabha, with the AAP’s emergence as the principal opposition party.
Hobbled by the rupture of its 24-year-old alliance with the BJP, the party is still battling the blowback of long-simmering sacrilege and drugs issues that have dented its core constituency among the Sikhs. To add to its woes, the farmers’ ferment has also unsettled its rural base.
The SAD’s pre-poll pact with BSP has been overshadowed by Channi’s newfound resonance among the SCs and is unlikely to pay the dividends that it expected from the formation, analysts say
Not surprisingly, the Akalis have reverted to their tested panthic pitch. It explains an unusual exhortation recently by Akal Takht head priest, an appointee of SAD-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee ( SGPC) to the Sikh community to support their party.
It is also counting on an aggressive campaign, spearheaded by Sukhbir Singh Badal, and enthusiastic cadres on the ground. The upcoming elections will the litmus test for Sukhbir Singh Badal, the first dynast in the 100-year-old party, as heir to his father, Akali stalwart Parkash Singh Badal.
Of all the parties, it is AAP that has an edge in the perception game. With its populist promises of ₹1,000 monthly cash transfer to women, free power and Delhi model of governance focused on quality education and health care, it has been getting traction despite the absence of a vibrant organizational structure at grassroots.
“AAP represents an idea of change, which is apparently striking a chord in Punjab, where a yearning for change has been simmering for a while now,” said Ashutosh Sharma, professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. “Punjabis are by nature adventurous and may see in AAP an alternative to traditional parties.”
No wonder AAP has painted the Punjab walls with its catchy war cry Ek mauka AAP nu ( One chance to AAP). The party’s spectacular performance last month in the Chandigarh municipal polls, where it emerged as the single largest party in its maiden outing, has warmed its cockles. “Chandigarh is a trailer to things to come in Punjab,” said the party’s Punjab co-in-charge Raghav Chadha.
Though all main parties are vying with each other on populist promises, the unprecedented breach in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security during his Punjab trip this week has led to a sudden shift in the political narrative. The BJP-PLC alliance has gone after the Channi government on the security issue, which may resonate with its core urban Hindu vote bank.
Punjab is clearly at an inflection point in its electoral history. This Valentine’s Day will decide which contestant gets its restive electorate’s hearty mandate.