‘This will be an Interesting Election’: Jagroop Singh Sekhon

Abeer Kapoor

In a conversation with Hardnews noted political scientist Jagroop Singh Sekhon shares his views on the assembly elections in Punjab. He heads the Political Science department in Guru Nanak Dev University and has over 3 decades of experience in analysing political trends and electoral analysis

 

What is the impact of the agrarian distress on the elections in Punjab? 

Punjab is predominantly an agrarian state and the rural economy is in serious jeopardy. One of the main reasons for this crisis is the decrease in the size of land holdings. With outputs per farm falling and prices fluctuating wildly the entire sector has become commercially unviable in the era of the market economy. The Akali Dal has traditionally been a party of the Panthak Sikhs. The rural areas have a large number of illiterate peasants who have been the vote-base of the party since before and after Independence. 

In the past ten years of Akali rule, the party has managed to alienate this entire section of the population. The biggest grouse of the voters has been the lack of jobs. The agricultural crisis in Punjab is no different from the rest of the country. The agriculture sector is close to witnessing a saturation point. This has left many without jobs, and with little or no industrialisation happening in the State; the woes of the youth have only increased. 

 How did the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) transform itself in the two-and-a-half years since the Lok Sabha election to become such a force?  

The AAP has not witnessed any qualitative change in the State. The biggest reason for this is their inability to build up an organisational structure in Punjab. For the last few years, there was no stability in the party. People would come and go. It was the old “Aya Ram aur Gaya Ram” situation. The other problem that the party faced was its inability to retain its veteran leaders. In October, its old guard and founders left. One prominent example is the exit from the party of Sucha Singh Chhotepur and Dharamvir Gandhi, who are one of the most respected politicians in the State. 

The other issue is that of distribution of tickets. There is growing awareness that the ticket distribution in AAP wasn’t all that transparent. Most of the party's leaders other than Bhagwat Mann were largely quiet on this subject.

The party might face a stiff challenge in the Majha region. The candidate fielded by the party for the Amritsar parliamentary seat is extremely controversial and is known to have connections with right-wing extremist groups. The electorate has already rejected the type of candidates who are getting a second chance with the AAP. 

Despite these underlying issues, the AAP is seeing a huge surge in popularity. There is an undercurrent of support that favours them. The party has massive support amongst the youth and Dalits. These two communities have decided to vote en masse for the party and this will make a huge difference in many tightly contested seats. 

How important is demonetisation as an electoral issue? 

In the beginning there was support for demonetisation, but now as time has passed, the side-effects have trickled down to the poor, the labourers, the small businessmen and the peasantry in the State. Farmers who dealt in cash crops were the ones that were affected the most. Public opinion has slowly turned against this move and in turn against the rulers who issued this edict. 

Is there anger towards the Akali Dal in the State? If so, why? 

Yes, of all the reasons, which contributed to the wave of anti-incumbency in 2014, the primary reason was the fall in popularity of Parkash Singh Badal. Since 1997, in election after election, it was his popularity that drove the parties fortunes forward.  

The inability and reluctance of the Akali Dal government to control the drug menace in the State have cast the government in a bad light. Goondagardi is one of the biggest problems in the State. One would think that these were problems exclusive to UP or Bihar, but now the situation in Punjab is just as bad. We have a transport mafia, we have a liquor mafia, and there is no space for others to work other than in these set-ups. The farming community is extremely upset, in the past few years farmers have had to undertake distress sales of their crops due to the networks that have been allowed to flourish by this government. 

There is growing anger amongst the peasantry. The first blow to the Akali Dal's image was the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. In the aftermath of the incident, the government was perceived as being indecisive in an extremely delicate and sensitive situation. The failure to fulfil its promises of providing senior secondary schools in each block and affordable health centres have also left many upset. There is a lot of anger and resentment towards the ruling establishment right now. 

What according to you will be the determining factor for the party that wins? 

Let’s get this straight the fight is between the Congress and AAP. However, the events of the past few days have made this election absorbing. The fatwa of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim supporting the Akali Dal will have some effect on the vote, but there might be a shift of the ballot to the Congress. 

Secondly, the Hindu population here in Punjab is different from its brethren in UP and Bihar. Here they don’t have much trouble shifting allegiance to the Congress. If this happens, then it will be one of the main factors for the winner. Thirdly, the smaller businessmen have been adversely affected by demonetisation and are growing disillusioned with the BJP, which is strong in the cities. Again these traders can quickly move from the saffron fold to the Congress or even the AAP. There is little or no ideological conflict between supporting either of the two.This election is going to be an interesting election. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2017