If there is one state that has stood in defiance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brand of politics, it is Punjab. It is the state where the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had to bite the dust when he contested against present Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh from Amritsar.
Even at the height of the Modi wave in 2014, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could win only six of the 13 seats while the Congress won three and the rookie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won four. Five years down, the line political equations have drastically changed and the Congress has emerged as a clear front runner in the present polls.
One needs to understand how and why this has happened over the last five years. One of the key factors has been the downhill slide of AAP. The party that had made an electoral debut in the state winning four Lok Sabha seats and had then threatened to walk away as the winner in the 2017 Assembly polls is today fighting for survival in the state even though it had emerged as the main opposition in the 2017 Assembly polls. It is only on the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat that its sitting MP Bhagwant Mann remains in the fight. Mann’s victory may pave the way for revival of the party in the days to come.
In such a scenario, it is being expected by the observers that the AAP vote would largely shift towards the Congress this time.
There is a lot of difference between the 2014 Lok Sabha, 2017 Assembly and the present polls. While the earlier two saw real issues in the driving seat, this time around they are the emotive issues that are dominating the discourse. In the earlier two polls, Punjab was rocking with issues of corruption, drug menace, farm distress and farmer suicides. But this time around, it is the issue of sacrilege of holy texts that is dictating the discourse on many seats. Then there is also the emotive issue of Kartarpur Corridor in the border areas.
The Akalis continue to stand discredited on the issue of sacrilege of holy texts and the SAD candidates are facing the heat on majority of the seats including that of Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal who is the wife of party president Sukhbir Singh Badal and daughter-in-law of former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. She is contesting from the Badal citadel of Bathinda while her husband is contesting from the neighbouring constituency of Ferozepur.
The Akalis have been on the back foot ever since the report of the Justice (Retired) Ranjit Singh Commission report on the incidents of sacrilege that started in 2015 and the police action on peaceful protestors in Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan was tabled in the state Assembly in August 2018. The Commission had been set up by the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in 2017. The report was very damaging for the Akalis as besides other indictments, it said that Parkash Singh Badal had the knowledge of the police action in Kotkapura.
Thereafter, there has been a split in the party with some senior leaders going on to form the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali). The tabling of the report was followed by constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to further probe the matter but the transfer of a key SIT member Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh in the middle of the poll campaign has proved to be a further dampener for the Akalis. The transfer was ordered by the Election Commission of India on the basis of a complaint lodged by the Akali leadership for an interview that he had given to a channel which allegedly had political overtones.
Another thing for which the Akalis are facing the heat is the Akal Takht granting apology to the now jailed Dera Saccha Sauda chief Baba Gurmit Ram Rahim in 2015 for blasphemy. It was only after a public outcry that the apology was withdrawn. There is a perceptible anger among the people for the Badals having ‘misused’ institutions like Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) as they are under the party’s influence. Majority of those arrested for the incidents of sacrilege were supporters of the controversial Dera Saccha Sauda.
This anger is being reflected the most in constituencies where the Badals are contesting. There have been occasions where people have shown them black flags, people conveying that they do not want politicians in their village and hardline Sikh elements like Dhyan Singh Mand, who had held a six-month-long dharna at Bargari last year, seeking action against those responsible for the sacrilege of holy texts and police firing that led to two deaths at Behbal Kalan. They have also led public marches on the issue of sacrilege of the holy texts.
The Akalis have been trying to counter all this by accusing Amarinder Singh of not fulfilling poll promises despite having taken an oath with Gutka Sahib in hand before the 2017 Assembly polls. They have been trying to convey to the people that this is real sacrilege. They are also trying to revive the memories of Operation Blue Star and the recent ‘Jo hua so hua’ remark by Sam Pitroda on 1984 anti-Sikh riots has provided them with fresh ammunition.
However, observers say that had 1984 been the deciding issue, the Congress would never have formed governments in Punjab and Delhi in the years that followed.
For the BJP too, the contest in Punjab is a contest for relevance in state politics. Irrespective of the fact that the party had a majority government in the state, its fortunes have been on the downhill in the last five years. The cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu leaving the party to join the Congress was a major blow. Its tally had come down to a mere three of the 23 seats contested in the state Assembly polls and to cap this, it lost the Gurdaspur by-poll that had fallen vacant after its MP Vinod Khanna had passed away in 2017.
As per its alliance with the SAD, it is contesting the three seats of Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur, having fielded Union Minister Hardeep Puri, Bollywood star Sunny Deol and senior leader Som Prakash who has replaced Union Minister Vijay Sampla as the party’s choice respectively. The party’s desperation was most visible in the fielding of Sunny Deol who enjoys the status of being ‘Punjab’s Rajnikant’ and is immensely popular with the youth. The BJP has repeated its trump card of fielding a Bollywood personality on the seat where Deol is up against Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar who had won the by-poll on this seat by a margin of almost 1.93 lakh votes by trouncing Swaran Singh Salaria.
The youth in the constituency is awed by Deol and anyone you talk to says that he would get the votes only because he is a film star. But once you move towards the villages, particularly along the Indo-Pak border, the heroes for the people are Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Navjot Sidhu for taking the first step on building the Kartarpur Corridor.
“This is a highly emotive issue for the people. To add to this, Jakhar is a refined politician who knows the issues of the people very well and has been trying to resolve them,” points out political observer Kamaljit Singh Kamal in Gurdaspur city.
“The BJP is largely trying to take credit for the Kartarpur initiative. This is not the case. When Imran took the first step after Sidhu’s request, Modi was left with no other option but to agree as this was a poll year and sentiments of millions are attached to Kartarpur Sahib,” pointed out Balbir Singh who was visiting Gurudwara Darbar Sahib on the Indian side in Dera Baba Nanak where this correspondent met him.
The people in this border state are not at all enthused with the war hysteria generated by television channels and denounce the Modi government’s approach towards Pakistan.
But all this does not mean that the polls will be a cakewalk for the Congress as anti-incumbency is setting in against the Amarinder Singh government. The farmers are accusing the government of not fulfilling its promises and are unhappy with the ‘partial’ loan waiver being given which they say is far from anything that can resolve their problems. The youth are unhappy as the much promised job avenues have not come their way. The only thing mushrooming across the state are the IELTS coaching centres that ensure a ticket to countries abroad where they prefer migrating for even blue-collar jobs. The people are also unhappy with the slow process of bringing the culprits responsible for sacrilege of holy texts to justice. They are questioning the need to set up a SIT instead of directly registering criminal cases on the basis of the Justice (retired) Ranjit Singh commission report. Similarly, the drug menace is far from resolved but one has to say that some steps have been taken in the direction.
Still, the Congress retains an upper hand as the AAP has faded almost into oblivion; the Akalis have failed to revive and continue to stand discredited while the other parties do not have a pan-Punjab support base. Here are a few interesting contests to watch out for. In Sangrur, AAP’s Bhagwant Mann is facing Parminder Dhindsa of SAD and Kewal Singh Dhillon of the Congress. In Bathinda, Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the SAD is facing a formidable challenge from the Congress’ Amarinder Singh Raja Warring with the AAP’s Baljinder Kaur and Punjab Democratic Alliance’s Sukhpal Singh Khaira also in the fray. Then, of course, is the battle between Sunil Jakhar of the Congress and Sunny Deol of the BJP in Gurdaspur.