Punjab: Horses for courses and a Great Exodus of women

In this week's States 360° diary: Lok Sabha election preparations, maverick 'heroes', migration patterns and a demographic drain—and the social influencers' flex

Navjot Singh Sidhu (left) and Sukhpal Khaira join hands here, but are best known for their persistent individualism (photo: National Herald archives)
Navjot Singh Sidhu (left) and Sukhpal Khaira join hands here, but are best known for their persistent individualism (photo: National Herald archives)

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

Punjab, historically a two-horse race between the Congress and the SAD–BJP combine, has now turned into a four-horse race with the arrival on the scene of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the BJP’s decision to go solo.

All four parties fought separately in the 2022 Assembly elections. While there are periodic talks of alliances, it’s more likely than not that the 2024 Lok Sabha elections will see a quadrangular contest.

The AAP, which has its government in Punjab, thinks it has an edge because the Opposition is fragmented. It also reckons that its feel-good advertising model, free electricity et al, will yield electoral dividends. But the party has no organisational depth and lacks credible faces. It is also seen to be wasteful, promoting a VIP culture and making a muck of governance—especially on the law and order front and in combating the state’s drug menace and illegal mining.

On the other hand, the Congress, which is the principal opposition party, has five or six power centres jockeying for space and influence. In the mix are two mavericks—Navjot Sidhu and Sukhpal Khaira—who are laws unto themselves.

Congress leaders are also in the crosshairs of state watchdogs, fending off sundry corruption charges. The defeats in the Sangrur (2022) and Jalandhar (2023) by-elections would’ve been chastening. On the positive side, Rahul Gandhi’s image certainly got a facelift after the Bharat Jodo Yatra and in people like Charanjit Channi, Sukhpal Khaira, Partap Bajwa and Navjot Sidhu, the party has credible faces.

Also, the party understands Punjab, a state that has been quite impervious to the so-called ‘Modi magic’.

However, the BJP is on the rise in Punjab too.

The party’s vote share has steadily increased since its divorce from Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) during the farmers’ agitation of 2020. It has successfully poached leaders off the Congress and the SAD—former chief minister Amarinder Singh, Sunil Jakhar, Rana Gurmit Sodhi, Manjinder Sirsa, Charanjit Atwal (former deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha). Now it is targeting the poor and Dalit votes through vigorous campaigns about ‘Modi ki guarantee’ and assorted central schemes. It also hopes to win a majority of the urban Hindu vote, building off Modi’s image and the hyper mobilisation from the Ayodhya Pran Pratishtha.

However, large swathes of rural and agrarian Punjab remain hostile to the BJP. Its hyper-nationalism and Pakistan bashing have few takers in the state. Its recent anti-farmer attitude remains fresh in Punjab’s memory and newly hostile relations with Canada—which is the immigration destination of choice here—mean the BJP has its work cut out beyond its traditional urban Hindu and semi-hilly bases.

In contrast, its oldest ally, the Akali Dal, faces an existential crisis. After being reduced to three seats and 18 per cent of the vote share in the state assembly, Sukhbir Badal’s party has suffered further humiliation in the by-elections. Its leadership lacks credibility; its core vote bank of Jatt Sikh rural farmers has crumbled. Its vaunted organisation is melting fast too, with daily desertions by cadre and leadership alike. The SAD’s ideological confusion continues, swinging between Panthic issues and toeing the ‘greater Hindutva’ line.

In a last desperate effort to hold on to his crumbling base and revive his political future, Badal announced a yatra on 1 February. Whether it will suffice for the revival of the once-stalwart regional favourite remains a moot question.

A tale of two mavericks

Navjot Singh Sidhu and Sukhpal Khaira—the two ‘mavericks’ of Punjab politics, to put it euphemistically—continue to be worse than a migraine for the Congress. Sidhu is out holding rallies in different parts of the state in defiance of the state leadership, while Khaira has taken the far right line, praising Sikh hardliners and making nativist appeals.

The two share several commonalities: lengthy spells in jail, a history of straying from the party line, frequent hopping over political fences, an almost cult-ish support in some quarters, anti-establishment creds—and lofty ambitions.

However, their long careers show little for their efforts. Both are too ‘individualistic’ for a game that is essentially about synergy and teamwork. Khaira was made leader of the opposition by the AAP and ended up dividing it badly enough to have become a target of the Mann government’s vendetta. Sidhu’s record as an MP and as Congress party chief is far less distinguished than he might like to claim.

Both rely on high-volume anti-establishment rhetoric, seemingly ideal for the age of social media, but now face intense competition from a bevy of influencers (more on that below). Lacking both stomach and skills to make a new party, though, the relatively liberal Congress remains their best choice—for as long as they are tolerated. Will Lok Sabha tickets be forthcoming, and channelise their formidable energies away from headache-inducing preoccupations?

Dischantment, disinvestment... exodus

A recent migration study conducted by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) has provided factual evidence of the accelerated trend of migration from the state in recent years. It shows that migration is now a pan-Punjab phenomenon, cutting across all communities and regions, and has dramatically increased since 2016.

The study concludes that the maximum numbers are of the Jatt Sikh and farming communities, which partially explains the dramatic collapse of the Akali Dal. The increasing anti-migrant sentiments voiced by the likes of Sukhpal Khaira, who has called for a law to restrict migration from other states, and the rise of the BJP can all be traced to the changing demographics.

The uptick in support for the AAP can also be explained by the greater proportion and rising numbers of NRIs in the equation.

What can stem the tide?

Empowerment of women, loosening of caste boundaries in marriages, reversing the decline of higher education due to the IELTS phenomenon, arresting exodus of capital investment and boosting stagnant property prices—which are themselves the socio-economic results of this increasing migration to foreign lands, the most popular destination being Canada.

The social influencers’ flex

The biggest challenge to the ruling AAP comes neither from the Opposition nor the media, but from social media influencers.

There’s RTI activist Manik Goyal; gangster-turned-social- activist Lakha Sidhana; father of the slain singer Sidhu Moosewala, Balkaur Singh, and channels like Akhar and Lok Awaz.

All have exposed the various failures of the government; most became famous during the kisan agitation and have lakhs of followers. Most of them are active in the core Malwa belt of Sangrur, Bathinda, Mansa and Faridkot—the core support area of the AAP, including chief minister Bhagwant Mann’s own constituency.

This explains the AAP's panic and the series of cases unleashed against them: charges from chain snatching to extortion (for Bhana Sidhu, an influencer who made a name for himself by helping people recover money from ‘travel agents’).

Unfortunately, though, going by the numbers who came out in Bhana Sidhu’s support, including farmers’ organisations, the AAP might be taking cudgels to its own vote bank.

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