For the first time, it is getting difficult for political observers to predict which way the wind will blow at the upcoming Assembly polls next month in Punjab, though they believe that Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress has an upper hand.
Stakes are high in the Assembly Elections scheduled to be held in Punjab next month for all the political parties. Who will make it to power when the results are announced on March 11 is the big question.
The elections in the state have always been bipolar, which had made it a little easier for soothsayers, and later psephologists, to give their opinions. This continued till 2012 when the electorate unseated the incumbent government. The Congress and its allies on one hand and the Shiromani Akali Dal supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party, swapped seats of power every five years.
However, the entry of a third player in the political turn – the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal – has made the assembly elections a triangular contest and has given sleepless nights to the analysts.
Let us take a look at how each of the three political parties is going to approach the elections.
A few state governments in India have continuously captured power at the end of their five-year tenure – not once, but twice, thrice and even five times. These include five-time chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu and Manik Sarkar of Tripura who became chief minister for the fourth time in 2013. There are numerous other examples of chief ministers and political parties who have been popular even after two or three terms in office. This cannot be true for the current Punjab chief minister, Prakash Singh Badal’s government and his extended family in the state. They are facing anti-incumbency after a decade-long rule.
Half-a-dozen factors plague Punjab’s poll prospects. These include the misrule of Badal and his extended family that has turned governance into matters of personal fiefdom, agrarian distress, patronising drug cartels and other mafias in money-spinning businesses like sand mining, infrastructure, transport and cable TV.
Of all the three players, it is the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress that is likely to garner majority seats on account of anti-incumbency against the Badal government. Also, the victory of Congress in Punjab would stem the tide of reversals that it has been facing nationally. It will only reignite the 132-year old party that has not only lost power at the centre but continues to lose every single bastion of power in the country since Narendra Modi’s ascendency to power in 2014. At present, the Congress is confined to Karnataka and in Puducherry and Bihar with coalition partners. Congress-ruled Uttarakhand and Manipur go to polls along with Punjab.
Even in 2012, Captain Amarinder Singh was confident of unseating the Akalis. Despite the highest vote share, the Congress then won 10 seats less than the Akalis. It lost eight seats by margins of less than 1,000 votes and four seats with margins less than 2,000 votes. The Congress and the Akali-BJP combine who were pitted against each other, witnessed a close contest in as many as 22 of 117 seats.
The return of cricketer-turned-politician, Navjot Singh Sidhu from BJP to Congress, will be a shot in the arm for the party. Known for his high-profile image and oratory skills, Sidhu is known to be a crowd puller. It is to be seen whether he can help boost the party’s vote share lead to a winning streak across the state.
For more than a year now, Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party have been travelling to Punjab and building base in the state. AAP is aiming to repeat a Delhi-type political magic in Punjab; it won 67 of the 70 assembly seats in the 2015 assembly polls.
AAP won all its four Lok Sabha seats in the state and got a staggering 30.40 pc of the popular vote at the peak of the ‘Modi wave’ in 2014. However, it is facing tough challenges from the Akali Dal-BJP combine and the Congress Party who are dubbing them as ‘outsiders’. In fact, the Akalis have launched an anti-Kejriwal tirade on the ‘outsider versus native’ narrative. “Punjab Punjabian da” (Punjab belongs to Punjabis) goes the new Akali rallying cry. The reference is to the Delhi chief minister’s Haryanvi ancestry in the context of Punjab’s long-standing water and territorial disputes with Haryana.
Even as all the three stakeholders defend their turf fiercely and go on a political offensive on several issues for the Assembly Elections to be held on February 4, they are busy courting to win over the support of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) – a sect, which wields considerable influence on the 34 pc Dalits of the state and could be a swing factor in at least 37 of the 117 constituencies.
Headquartered at Sirsa, in neighbouring Haryana, DSS is a non-profit social welfare and spiritual organisation, was established on April 29, 1948, by the ascetic Mastana Balochistani, as a centre for spiritual learning. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who is the current leader of DSS, is being visited by all the party leaders. However, the sect is yet to indicate its preference.
This is the last election of 89-year-old patriarch, Parkash Singh Badal. It is to be seen whether his son and heir-apparent, Sukhbir Singh Badal can keep up his winning streak. It will also decide the destiny of two political leaders – Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi – who have an opportunity to rise up and challenge the BJP in the 2019 General Election.
The westerly winds, locally known as ‘Pacchhon’, currently sweeping across North India are said to take the sting out of the cold and fade the fog away. But, which of these stakeholders will these winds blow in favour of? Or, will Punjab head for a split mandate? Wait and watch this space on March 11, when the ballots are counted.