Punjab Lok Sabha polls: Favourites in a four-cornered contest

The Congress and AAP, adversaries here but allies nationally in the INDIA bloc, will likely best the other two players

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) roadshow in Amritsar on 16 May 2024 (photo: Getty Images)
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) roadshow in Amritsar on 16 May 2024 (photo: Getty Images)

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

This year, Punjab has four serious players—the Indian National Congress (INC), the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the AAP.

In some constituencies—like Sangrur, Bathinda and Khadoor Sahib—there will be five-horse races with radical Sikh contestants Simranjit Singh Mann, Lakha Sidhana and Amritpal Singh putting up a serious challenge as well.

Punjab politicians have often been likened to titlis (butterflies) flitting from one flower to another. Indeed, all parties have benefited this time with an unprecedented surge of turncoats.

The ruling AAP has secured the services of Gurpreet Singh GP and Raj Kumar Chabbewal from the Congress as well as Pawan Kumar Tinnu. The Congress attracted former AAP leaders like Yamini Gomar while the beleaguered SAD has been able to recruit former congressman Mahinder Singh KP.

However, it is the BJP which has fielded the highest number of political defectors—Sushil Kumar Rinku (Jalandhar), Ravneet Bittu (Ludhiana), Preneet Kaur (Patiala), Parampal Kaur (Bathinda) and Mandeep Manna (Khadoor Sahib)—who have been poached from the AAP, the Congress and the SAD.

Backlash against the BJP in the rural areas, led by kisan unions, has been both pronounced and frequent.

The repressive actions of Haryana’s BJP government against protesting Punjab farmers over MSP (minimum support price) and debt relief has led to the collective ire of the farming community. BJP candidates have not only faced vocal protests, they have not been allowed to campaign in rural areas by kisan activists.

The steady advance of the radical Sikhs is yet another feature of these elections.

The surprise victory of Simranjit Singh Mann during the Sangrur by-elections in 2022 was a major breakthrough after two decades.

The decline of the moderate SAD (Badal), the emergence of the charismatic duo of Deep Sidhu and Amritpal Singh, the restlessness of the youth and the polarising effect of social media combined to galvanise radicals.

They are expected to do well in at least three seats—Sangrur (Simranjit Singh Mann), Bathinda (Lakha Sidhana) and Khadoor Sahib (Amritpal Singh). There is also the real possibility of a sympathy wave in favour of Amritpal, who was dramatically arrested for espousing Khalistan and incarcerated in Assam.

In the 2022 state assembly election, the AAP had polled 42 per cent of the votes, the INC 23 per cent, the SAD around 20 per cent and the BJP 8 per cent.

In subsequent by-elections, the BJP vote share improved in the state, the SAD’s declined, the Congress appeared stagnant while the AAP went on a rollercoaster ride. The radical Sikh party, SAD (Mann), was also seen to be gaining in popularity.

In 2022, there was also resentment against the BJP for unleashing the farm laws, against the SAD for supporting them and against the Congress for its lacklustre governance.

Moreover, the credibility of the AAP’s leadership—Kejriwal in Delhi and Bhagwant Mann in the state—was higher.

With its promise of the ‘Delhi model’ of cheap electricity, education and health, the AAP was lapped up by the Punjab electorate. Its untested and fresh faces were perceived to be more credible than the ‘corrupt’ old guard, and people went all out to give ik mauka Bhagwant Mann nun (a chance to Bhagwat Mann).

Despite no perceptible wave in favour of any party, the situation in 2024 is different.

The AAP has been boasting of making a clean sweep, winning all 13 seats in the state. It is banking on the popularity of Bhagwant Mann and its campaigning model.

It also hopes that division in opposition votes would help it in multi-cornered contests. Its campaign hinges on the slogans “Sansad vich vi Bhagwant Mann (Bhagwant Mann in Parliament too)” and “Zulm da jawaab vote naal (Vote against oppression)” to protest the imprisonment of Arvind Kejriwal.

The arrest and decimation of almost its entire Delhi leadership has, however, arrested the AAP’s campaign momentum as well.

The non-performance of its MLAs and its over-reliance on poached candidates exposes the shortage of credible leaders too. Multiple failures in dealing with drug trafficking, law and order and sand-mining issues have also been glaring.

Sections of the farmers, women and employees are all unhappy about their unfulfilled poll promises now.

The use of public funds on helicopter rides, hiring private jets and releasing advertisements outside Punjab has also dented the Aam Aadmi Party’s image, while the Delhi liquor policy ‘scam’ has taken a toll on its claims of being 'kattar imandar' (absolutely honest).

Yet, the AAP remains a force to reckon with in almost all the seats and looks particularly strong in Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Anandpur Sahib and Hoshiarpur.

The INC is also exuding confidence, hopeful of repeating its 2019 performance when it won 8 of the 13 Lok Sabha seats.

Buoyed by Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, its campaign on the threats to democracy and the Constitution and its promises of Paanch Nyay (benefits for the poor, women, minorities, backward classes and youth), the Punjab Congress believes that a combination of an attractive manifesto and credible candidates will help it sail through.

Fielding Dr Dharamvir Gandhi and Sukhpal Khaira from Patiala and Sangrur respectively has bolstered the party, while putting up equally strong leaders like Charanjit Channi (Jalandhar), Raja Warring (Ludhiana) and Sukhjinder Randhawa (Gurdaspur) has boosted its hopes.

On the flip side, still riven by factional fights, the Punjab Congress has put up less than ideal candidates from seats like Khadoor Sahib, Bathinda, Anandpur Sahib and Hoshiarpur, thus weakening its chances there.

Several Congress leaders are facing vigilance probes, and the memory of Captain Amarinder Singh’s lacklustre governance has added to its image problem despite the ‘New Congress’ rhetoric of Rahul Gandhi.

Nevertheless, the Congress is likely to do well in Punjab and emerge as the largest party in the state.

Punjab’s 100-year-old party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), has been struggling under Sukhbir Badal.

He has tried to rejuvenate the party with a Punjab Bachao Yatra and by mending fences with the Taksali Akalis like Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and Bibi Jagir Kaur. He has also attempted a course correction by refusing to join hands with the BJP, thus burnishing the SAD’s panthic credentials.

SAD is projecting itself as the only authentic Punjabi party.

However, desertions by local satraps like Pawan Kumar Tinnu, the Maluka family and Talbir Gill, along with the radical revival in core SAD areas, pose existential threats to the SAD.

Despite its shrinking social base and erosion of identity as the Punjabi, Sikh and peasants’ party, the SAD has fielded some strong candidates—like Harsimrat Badal (Bathinda), Prem Singh Chandumajra (Anandpur Sahib), Anil Joshi (Amritsar) and Virsa Valtoha (Khadoor Sahib); but it appears to have a realistic chance only in its last bastion, Bathinda.

The BJP, ever since its divorce from the SAD in the wake of the farm laws in 2020, has decided to go solo in the state.

It made some gains in the two by-elections at Sangrur and Jalandhar, and also tried to give a regional touch to the party through the wholesale induction of Jatt leaders like Captain Amarinder Singh and Sunil Jakhar.

The BJP made religious appeals to Sikhs too, by commemorating the sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur and celebrating Veer Bal Diwas.

Apart from hoping to consolidate its upper-caste Hindu base through the religious fervour around the Ram Mandir, it is banking on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and various central government schemes, including free rations, gas cylinders and pucca houses.

However, the determined opposition of farmers has been a roadblock. It is struggling even in its traditional strongholds of Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur.

With its reliance on ‘imported defectors’ like Ravneet Bittu, Sushil Rinku, Perneet Kaur and Rana Gurmit Sodhi, the BJP will be lucky to open its account in the absence of its traditional ally, the SAD.

There is little enough positive enthusiasm among the people of the Punjab for any of the parties, in the end.

The main contest, then, seems to be between the Congress and the AAP, with the SAD and the ascendent radical Sikhs also in the fray.

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