Punjab: Stern Test at the Ballot
The 2017 elections in Punjab bring tough times for the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine
Jagrup S Sekhon Amritsar
The 2017 assembly elections in punjab will be a real test of the established political parties on the one hand and the nascent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on the other. The marginalisation of other political parties i.e. the Left, BSP etc. is going to further decimate their relevance in the electoral process in the state . In this way the major competition in these elections will be among the Congress, the SAD-BJP alliance and the AAP. Punjab is going to witness one of the most keenly watched and interesting assembly elections since Independence. The alternative oscillating monopoly of the two dominant political parties i.e. the Congress and the SAD, since the reorganisation of the state in 1966 ,is going to face a serious challenge in the 2017 Assembly elections. The first challenge came to these parties in 2014 when the Aam Aadmi Party won four parliamentary seats out of a total 13.
Historically, the Congress Party remained in power in Punjab until 1967 and after that both the Congress and the SAD formed the governments alternatively until 2012. It was only in the 2012 Assembly elections that the SAD-BJP alliance broke this cycle and has continued to remain in power until today. It is important to mention here that it was only in 1997 -2002 that any non-Congress government completed its full five year term in Punjab. In 2012, Congress lost the Assembly elections by a narrow margin and roughly a dozen of its candidates lost by margins of less than two thousand votes .The vote-share of the Congress was just less than two percent of the combined vote-share of the BJP-SAD alliance. The large number of Congress rebels spoiled the game for the party, along with overconfidence and arrogance on the part of the leader of the poll campaign, Captain Amarinder Singh .The role of the deras and babas has become very important in the post- militancy era in the electoral process in Punjab.
There has been mushrooming growth of these institutions for various reasons. CSDS data shows that there had been a substantial shift of votes of the followers of prominent deras such as Sacha Sauda, Radha Soami and others in favour of the SAD-BJP alliance in 2012 elections . The other important aspect in the victory of the alliance was the formation of the Peoples’ Party of Punjab (PPP) by Mr. Manpreet Singh Badal, the estranged nephew of Parkash Singh Badal which got more than 5 percent of the total votes cast in the elections. It helped the ruling alliance to a great extent by neutralising the anti incumbency wave in the state. The continuous rule of the Badal family since 2007, however, brought new issues forth in the 2014 Parliamentary elections.
The biggest challenges before the ruling alliance are anti-incumbency and the unresolved issues of the people. The possibility of the Congress taking central position arises only if the AAP makes political blunders by involving itself in irrelevant issues or giving tickets to undeserving candidates. A large number of aspirants have joined AAP and the real test of the party will be at the time of distribution of tickets to the deserving Ones
The anti-incumbency wave against the State government was high on account of various issues: the drug menace in the State, farmer suicides, sky-rocketing prices of sand and gravel, corruption and arrogance of the low-level cadre of the ruling alliance, monopoly of the ruling family over the transport and liquor trades , gang wars and increasing lawlessness and insecurity of women in particular, and political opponents in general. Since the results of these elections the ruling party has been engaged in damage control exercise along with mobilising its traditional vote bank raising emotional issues namely the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal, construction of memorials and sending people on pilgrimages outside the state at government’s cost.
Issues which will dominate the elections in 2017
The Punjabis, for centuries, have been known for undertaking new experiments and fights against injustices and the barbarism of the ruling establishments. Because of this a large number of socio-political movements (radical and reactionary)originated in the state before and after Independence. The visceral anger of the people against the ruling alliance in the 2014 elections was not an exception. Since then it has been increasing manifold as both the SAD and the BJP are facing dissidence and infighting within their respective parties. The suspension of two MLAs from the SAD and resignation of Navjot Singh Singh Sidhu from the Rajya Sabha seat are clear indications of the developments in the coming days in Punjab. On the other hand the Congress in the state is badly shattered and faction-ridden. The continuous two terms rule of the Badal regime led to mass defections of Congress leaders to the SAD at the grass-root level .
The Congress has lost its sheen and people do not have any expectations of any new initiatives from the party to help fix their problems. What worries both Akalis and the Congress is that for the first time a new party has challenged both political parties simultaneously. The AAP is not leaving any opportunity for SAD to recover by focussing on a panthic agenda by itself taking up various issues related to the Sikh community like the formation of a SIT to enquire into the Delhi riots, financial help for the victims naming a road after Sikh warrior Baba Banda Bahadur etc. It is stealing the show from the Congress by making promises to make the state drug and corruption free and providing a transparent administration.On the other hand, the Congress is still searching its lost ground and has not recovered from the shock of 2014 elections. The other important role in the coming elections will be of the Non-resident Indians (NRIs) of Punjab. In the last elections, they liberally supported the candidates of the AAP.The love of NRIs for the AAP is still intact although there are a few reservations about the vertical division in elected members of Parliament in Punjab, exit of founder members of the AAP (Prashant Bhushan and Prof. Yogendra Yadav) and the formation of the Swaraj Party by a dissident, breakaway group of the AAP.
The visceral anger of the people against the ruling alliance in the 2014 elections was not an exception. Since then it has been increasing manifold as both the SAD and the BJP are facing dissidence and infighting within their respective parties. The suspension of two MLAs from the SAD and resignation of Navjot Singh Singh Sidhu from the Rajya Sabha seat are clear indications of the developments in the coming days in Punjab
The nature of the fight has become very clear as these three political parties are putting their energies and resources into mobilising their workers to achieve a decisive mandate in the forthcoming 2017 elections. The ruling party is trying its level best to convince electorates of the development work done over the last 9 years. The Congress party is also trying its level best to provide an alternative to the ruling alliance with many poll sops, but it has received a lukewarm response from the general public. The biggest challenges before the ruling alliance are anti-incumbency and the unresolved issues of the people.
The possibility of the Congress taking central position arises only if the AAP makes political blunders by involving itself in irrelevant issues or giving tickets to undeserving candidates. A large number of aspirants have joined AAP and the real test of the party will be at the time of distribution of tickets to deserving and grassroots workers. Otherwise the situation will be much worse than what is happening in Delhi at present. Moreover, the possible induction of Navjot Singh Sidhu could also boost the AAP’s confidence in Punjab. As mentioned earlier, the issues in the coming election will possibly remain the same as those of the 2014 elections. The issues raised by the AAP leadership in those elections caught the imagination of the people of the state as 49.1 percent of the total voters agreed that the AAP in Punjab had succeeded in raising important and relevant issues.
The party publicly accused powerful members of the ruling family of alleged involvement in drug peddling, anti -people activities and political vendetta. The post-poll survey conducted in Punjab by Lokniti found that about 58.7 per cent of the total respondents were of the view that the SAD-BJP government had totally failed to curb the menace of drugs in Punjab. On the other important issue — the safety of the women in the state—a total of 45 percent of the total respondents were of the view that safety and security had deteriorated in the last five years while only 16 per cent stated that it had improved.