Lok Sabha polls: The Punjab verdict and its strange Panthic patterns

The Congress has the largest crop in the Punjab, but the rise of the so-called radicals has been the most intriguing story

Former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi of the Congress won big (photo: @CHARANJITCHANNI/X)
Former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi of the Congress won big (photo: @CHARANJITCHANNI/X)

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

The Congress-led INDIA bloc defied the appeal of Modi and the BJP for the third successive Lok Sabha election in Punjab, winning 10 out of the 13 seats in the state.

The Congress itself emerged as the largest party, winning seven seats, while the ruling AAP won three seats. Significantly, the Congress and AAP were not alliance partners in Punjab, but bitter rivals as has been traditional here.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) was able to retain its citadel in Bathinda, while independent Sikh radicals won two seats in the seat.

The BJP, despite drawing a blank in Punjab, at least 'significantly improved' its vote share and emerged as an independent force in the state this time.

This was the most open election in Punjab’s history, as evidenced by the five-way contests in most seats, very slender margins and unexpected surprises — the biggest of which was the emergence of Sikh radicals as a political force to reckon with.

The cutting down to size of the Aam Aadmi Party, the decimation of the Sukhbir Badal-led SAD and the BJP securing an independent foothold in the state were other significant themes of this election in Punjab.

The Congress, after its humiliating defeat in the 2022 Vidhan Sabha elections, made a strong comeback in the state by winning seven seats and emerging as the largest party. It has increased its vote share by 3 per cent, to 26 per cent, and made its presence felt in all the major regions of Punjab.

Among the Congress' most significant winners in the state were former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, who won with a record margin of over 1.75 lakh votes from Jalandhar; former deputy chief minister Sukhjinder Randhawa (from Gurdaspur); PPCC president Raja Warring (Ludhiana); and socio-political activist Dr Dharamvira Gandhi (Patiala), who had only recently joined the Congress.

Two of its former MPs, Dr Amar Singh (Fatehgarh Sahib) and Gurjit Aujla (Amritsar), were able to retain their seats as well.

The Congress was also able to win the Ferozepur Lok Sabha seat after nearly 40 years. Sher Singh Gubhaya won by only 3,200 seats in a titanic contest here, with only 13,000 votes separating the winner from the fourth-place candidate.

The Congress’ performance is attributed to the goodwill ensured by Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, pro-poor manifesto and some good, credible candidates it put up. There were signs that the educated middle class, salaried employees and significant sections of the Dalit population had backed the Congress during these elections.

On the flip side, the Congress performance in rural Malwa was sub par, with a significant erosion of its peasant vote bank. Poor candidate choices in Bathinda, Sangrur and Anandpur Sahib also cost the party

The results of this election must have come as a ruder shock, however, to the AAP and chief minister Bhagwant Mann, who were claiming a 13–0 result during their campaigns .

The party’s vote share came down by 16 per cent, falling from 42 per cent to 26 per cent, in this election.

Apart from Sangrur, its citadel, where AAP candidate Gurmeet Hayer won by over 1.72  lakh votes, the party was able to win only Hoshiarpur (Raj Kumar Chabbewal) and Anandpur Sahib (Malvinder Kang). Except for Gurmeet Hayer, all its sitting MPs and MLAs lost in this election.

There was visible anger against the incumbent state government among the youth, Dalits, women and salaried employees, whose aspirations it could not fulfil.

Non-performing MLAs , a weak party structure and an insipid narrative (13 Bhagwant Manns in Parliament, vote against the imprisonment of Kejriwal, etc.) all contributed to the sub-optimal results.

However, despite this setback, the popularity of CM Bhagwant Mann remains high, and significant sections of the population, especially the lower-class peasantry, small traders, lower middle classes in general and OBC groups have emerged as key vote banks for the AAP. The AAP government's initiatives of free electricity and Aam Aadmi Clinics have also drawn a positive response from the people.

As for the BJP, it might not have secured any seat in the state, but it has perhaps been the biggest winner, having more than doubled its vote share — from 9 per cent to over 18.5 per cent.

Formerly confined to the foothills of Punjab in Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur districts and parts of urban Punjab, the BJP has made inroads into the heart of the state.

Its candidates have secured between 2 and 3 lakh votes in the large urban and semi-urban seats with a significant Hindu population—like Ludhiana, Amritsar, Jalandhar, Patiala, Ferozepur, etc., apart from its traditional pahaari bastions.

The Ram Mandir issue, the personal appeal of Modi and the religious polarisation in the cities, along with simultaneous polarisation and greater radicalisation of Sikhs in pockets of the state benefitted the BJP.

The BJP candidates in almost all cities and mandi towns have secured a good number of votes: 5 (out of 6) assembly constituencies in urban Ludhiana voted for the BJP, as did 3 (of 5) in Amritsar, 2 (of 4) in Jalandhar and all 3 in Patiala. Despite the vocal and visible opposition of the kisaan unions, the BJP has been able to carve out space in the rural areas too, especially among sections of the Dalit communities.

Meanwhile, what of the Akali Dal candidates? Despite holding on to its usual bastion of Bathinda — from where Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of Sukhbir Badal of the SAD(B) contested — this election might prove the final nail in the SAD(B) coffin.

The only other seats in which the Akali Dal provided some resistance were Ferozepur, Amritsar and Patiala.

The once proud 100-year-old party that is Punjab's own, which stood for the rights of the Punjab, the Sikhs and the farmers of this land and this people, is now irreversibly sliding towards irrelevance.

The vote share of the SAD(B) has declined by nearly 5 per cent — from 18.5 per cent to 13.4 per cent — with 10 of its candidates losing their deposit. More importantly, it has now slid officially to the fourth spot in state politics, behind its former junior partner, the BJP.

Yes, the 10 BJP candidates secured more votes than the Akali Dal candidates in this election. With the rise of the radicals, a resurgent BJP and the ruling AAP — all hungry, all ruthless and moving in for the kill to poach from its supporters, leaders and cadre — only a miracle can now save the Akali Dal from political oblivion and decimation.

The BSP, meanwhile, after its recent divorce from the SAD(B) has fought these elections alone, securing 2.49 per cent of the vote share — mostly in its core area of Doaba.

Three of its candidates — Jasvir Singh Garhi (Anandpur Sahib), Balwinder Kumar (Jalandhar) and Ranjit Kumar (Hoshiarpur) — secured a fair number of votes and gave their erstwhile partners a close contest, especially in Anandpur Sahib and Jalandhar.

However, the biggest story of this year's Lok Sabha elections in Punjab was the rise of the radicals, the Panthic Sikhs.

Not confined to any one political party, these are an assorted bunch, including the old Khalistani warhorse Simranjit Mann, whose party SAD(A) contested from almost all the seats, as well as independents like Amritpal Singh, the fiery radical preacher who is currently lodged in Dibrugarh jail, and Sarabjit Singh Khalsa, son of Beant Singh, assassin of Indira Gandhi.

Two of these independents — Amritpal Singh (from Khadoor Sahib) and Sarabjit Singh (Faridkot ) — were able to win with huge margins. Amritpal won by over 1.97 lakh votes, the highest margin in all of Punjab, while Sarabjit won by 70,000-odd votes.

Even Simranjit Singh Mann was able to win 1.87 lakh votes from Sangrur. Others, like Lakha Sidhana (Bathinda), Pr Mohinder Pal (Patiala), Kamaljit Brar (Ludhiana) and Raj Jatinder Singh (Fatehgarh Sahib), also secured a creditable number of votes.

Collectively, the various Panthics secured 9–10 per cent of the votes in the state.

A significant section of the rural Sikh youth from the farming communities has become the core vote bank of the Panthics during this election.

The rise of the Panthics can be attributed to several reasons, including the decline of the moderate Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), the emergence of the charismatic duo of Deep Sidhu and Amritpal Singh, a restless youth, dwindling hopes of badlav ('change'), revulsion at the turncoats, rise in drug addiction figures, stagnation of the agrarian economy, a backlash against migrants and the polarising effect of social media networks.

Many in the national media may interpret the rise of the Panthics as a revival of 'Khalistan'. However, among the people of Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot, from where Amritpal and Sarabjit were elected, sympathy and emotional connect played a more important role. Their anxieties about, fear of and disillusionment with different political parties were a bigger impetus than any dreams of Khalistan.

Another notable feature of the campaign in Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot was its decentralised nature, driven by common people and characterised by the use of gurdwaras and religious appeals to mobilise the masses. Influencers, NRIs, and youth all flocked to these areas to boost the campaign of the independents.

The rise of the neo-Panthics like Amritpal Singh and the loss of Simranjit Mann also symbolise the generational shift in Panthic politics, where a new wave of aggressive, social media-savvy Panthics from humble backgrounds and using the common idiom could replace the old feudal and familial Panthics like Mann.

However, questions remain about the internal cohesion of the Panthics, as the public spat of Simranjit Mann and Sarabjit Singh during the elections shows.

The lessons of 1989, when the Panthics got an even bigger mandate — only to lose it through internecine conflict and familial greed — are still fresh in public memory.

The simultaneous rise of Panthics and the BJP is no coincidence. Both their aggression and their communal appeals strengthen each other.

The biggest story of this Punjab election is not the win of the INDIA parties or the decline of the Akalis, but the moving to the centrestage of hithero peripheral forces in Punjab politics — i.e., the right-wing Sikh and Hindu political parties.

Despite the rise of the right wing, the pluralism of Punjab politics remains intact on the ground, with the win of the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress and the continued salience of the Aam Aadmi Party — both centrist parties with a majority of the people behind them.

However, political competition and the mood of the state overall promise that the tensions are likely to remain high in the run-up to the 2027 Vidhan Sabha elections.

HARJESHWAR PAL SINGH is director of Punjab Thinks

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