As the Opposition gears up to unitedly take on BJP in the next Lok Sabha elections slated for 2019, Punjab is one state where Congress does not need any partners.
Punjab’s Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh made this clear on July 24. "Given the public sentiment in Punjab, where the Congress had won all the recent elections (including Gurdaspur and Shahkot) with record margins, the party did not require any alliance for the parliamentary elections next year. The Congress will win hands down on its own," said Singh.
The Congress had swept the assembly elections in Punjab early in 2017, winning 77 seats in the 117-member assembly. The Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance, which ruled Punjab for a decade (2007-2017), finished third in the assembly poll. The Aam Aadmi Party, in its first outing in the assembly polls in Punjab, ended up as the main opposition party, though winning only 20 seats.
Since the assembly polls, the Congress has continued to notch up electoral victories under Capt Amarinder Singh. The SAD-BJP follow at a distant second place and the AAP was all but wiped out in these subsequent elections.
Congress has handily won three by-elections in the state since the assembly polls, including to the Lok Sabha seats of Amritsar and Gurdaspur, and the Shahkot assembly bypoll. The Congress also emerged victorious in 20 out of 29 Municipal Councils and Nagar Panchayats in local body elections held in December 2017 (see graphic below). Congress also won all three Municipal Corporations—Amritsar, Jalandhar and Patiala— where polling was held. Two months later, Congress swept the Ludhiana municipal corporation polls, winning 62 out of 95 wards. The BJP-SAD alliance won 21 seats, Lok Insaf Party 7, independents 4 and AAP, 1 seat.
Congress, thus, is in pole position to grab most of Punjab’s Lok Sabha seats in the next general election. Out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab, the SAD-BJP combine currently holds five (four SAD, one BJP), while the Congress has four seats and AAP another four. The headline graphic (see above) shows Punjab’s 2014 Lok Sabha results and its 2017 assembly election results projected onto its Lok Sabha seats. As per these results, the Congress led in 10 and Aam Aadmi Party in 3 Lok Sabha seats in early 2017. Ever since, BJP and AAP have been in a downward spiral. Only the Badal family that heads SAD has prospects of retaining at least its present Lok Sabha seat of Bathinda, if not more.
Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP won a historic four Lok Sabha seats in Punjab in its first foray into Parliamentary elections in 2014. Ever since, the AAP in Punjab has floundered. It lost the assembly polls despite several senior journalists claiming it was going to form the government. True, AAP displaced SAD as the Opposition party in Punjab, no mean feat for a newbie party. But this disguises the fact that AAP won a paltry 20 of 117 seats. AAP was subsequently wiped out in civic polls in the state, held later in 2017. Two of its 4 MPs were suspended by the party. Several party workers have quit since the assembly election. Worse, senior leaders quit after Kejriwal apologised to SAD leader Bikram Majithia for making unsubstantiated allegations against him. AAP’s assembly poll partner Lok Insaf Party also ended the alliance, and ever since the two have been at each other’s throats, handing Congress the advantage in the Ludhiana LS seat.
Now, with the sudden removal of former Leader of Opposition in the state assembly Sukhpal Singh Khaira and his replacement with Harpal Singh Cheema as LoP, AAP is faced with a split in the state. The party on July 31 blamed the RSS, SAD, BJP and Bains brothers of LIF of trying to split the party unit in Punjab. "Some AAP legislators are falling prey to the trap being laid by these anti-Punjab powers," said middle-rung AAP leaders in a joint statement. They claimed news reports had hinted at a secret meeting between Khaira and senior SAD leader Majithia.
Khaira, who was removed as the LoP through a tweet from AAP national leader, Delhi Deputy CM and Punjab in-charge Manish Sisodia, remained defiant over his removal, which led to an internal upheaval among the party's legislators. Khaira paraded eight legislators in his support in Chandigarh last week. On Friday, August 3, All India Radio reported that 8 AAP MLAs led by Khaira have declared the party's Punjab unit autonomous and dissolved the party's current organisational structure.
At this rate, it looks an uphill task for AAP to retain even one if its four Lok Sabha seats in the next general election.
Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah held a closed-door meeting on June 7 with the top Shiromani Akali Dal leadership, including five-time Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and party President Sukhbir Singh Badal , as part of a series of meetings to smooth things over with disgruntled BJP allies. While Sukhbir Badal's wife, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, remains Union Minister for Food Processing in the Narendra Modi government, relations between the two old allies have recently seen some strain.
The BJP’s declining popularity in the state, ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision, may be one reason why the SAD, while remaining part of the NDA, has begun making critical noises against its junior partner in Punjab. Anger over the hardships of demonetisation have been most visible in Punjab, where a BJP MLA in vain pleaded with his constituents not to blame him for demonetisation and re-elect him to the assembly. Demonetisation woes inspired a number of Punjabi songs, the most famous of which was ‘Modia, panj sau hazaari de ni band karide’. BJP also lost a bypoll to its Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat, necessitated by the passing away of its MP Vinod Khanna, to Congress’ Sunil Jakhar by a huge margin of nearly 2 lakh votes in October 2017.
While SAD voted along with the NDA government in the recent no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha moved by Andhra Pradesh parties, SAD MP Prem Singh Chandumajra opened his speech during the motion by supporting N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party's demand for special status for Andhra Pradesh. Chandumajra also reportedly advised the TDP not to trust BJP, saying they are not worth trusting.
This does not mean that, unlike with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, SAD and BJP won’t fight the next Lok Sabha polls together in Punjab. This time, however, BJP may have to settle for fewer seats as, if the assembly election results are anything to go by, BJP will have a tough time retaining even its sole remaining Lok Sabha seat of Hoshiarpur.
As people vote differently in assembly and Lok Sabha polls, the Badals will likely retain their family seat of Bathinda, currently held by Harsimrat Kaur Badal. They may even pick up one or two more seats, for that great survivor of Punjab politics Parkash Singh Badal, always has a trick or two hidden up his sleeve.
But as things stand today, with less than a year to go for Parliamentary polls, Congress under the able leadership of Capt Amarinder Singh looks favourite to sweep most of Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats, on its own.
With IANS inputs.