Undisputedly, it will be a momentous election for all three major parties – Akalis, Congress and the formidable AAP. The outcome will have a bearing beyond the state and on the political fortunes of those in the fray. And, the Congress has the highest stakes. Of five poll-bound states, it’s only in Punjab that it has a realistic chance to win and refashion national narrative. Yet another debacle, the third on a trot, could well push it off the map of yet another state.
CHANDIGARH – Across north India, ‘Magh’, the 11th month of the Hindu and Sikh calendars, marks a change of seasons. In Punjab, the westerly winds, colloquially called ‘pacchhon’, gently sweep away the chill and fog, revealing stunningly sun-drenched lush-green swathes of wheat crop, the air redolent with mustard in bloom. This time, the breeze has a palpable flavour, that of political change.
Punjab is on the cusp of a history-making assembly election. The first shape-shifter is evident in the contours of the contest itself. Since 1947, the two traditional parties, the Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress, have dominated the electoral landscape and taken turns to rule the border state – a neat seven times each, reported Hindustan Times.
Only 2012 was an exception when the SAD-BJP combine romped home to an unprecedented successive win, thanks largely to the Congress’s hubris and blunders in ticket distribution.
This time, however, the Aam Aadmi Party has disturbed the bipolar mould. Never before has Punjab seen such a potent third force in the power sweepstakes. It has, to all intent and purposes, turned the long-entrenched revolving door politics into a TITA (there is third alternative) narrative.
What the rookie party lacks in grassroots organisational muscle of its powerful rivals, it has more than made up for by tapping into a groundswell of voter angst with a Trump-style, take-no-prisoners campaign.
Undisputedly, it will be a momentous election for all three contestants. The outcome will have a bearing beyond the state and on the political fortunes of those in the fray. And, the Congress has the highest stakes. Of five poll-bound states, it’s only in Punjab that it has a realistic chance to win and refashion national narrative. Yet another debacle, the third on a trot, could well push it off the map of yet another state.
Also, 75-year-old Captain Amarinder Singh has a lot to redeem in what he calls his last electoral outing. Blemished by two successive assembly defeats, the scion of the Patiala royal family recovered his political luck in his dramatic Amritsar victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. On test is his reputation as the only leader capable of catapulting the party onto the victory podium.
But, he has to contend with a determined AAP which is proving a more powerful foe than the Akalis whom Rahul Gandhi recently reckoned were a “formidable machine”.
For the rookie party, it’s a make-or-break election after it pulled off a stunner in the 2014 polls, picking all of its four Lok Sabha seats from Punjab and garnering a 25% vote share. In Kejriwal’s scheme of things, Punjab is low-hanging fruit. It’s a critical addition for his national ambitions for 2019 and to prove that he is not a one-trick pony.
Despite being hit by a string of splits and scandals that have dissipated some of its energy, AAP is still cutting a swathe in the state’s complex religion-caste algebra. It’s “change the system” caller tune has many takers among the youth, the most vocal protagonists of popular disenchantment with traditional parties.
Cognisant of the third player’s disruptive politics, both the Congress and the Akalis are centering their anti-Kejriwal tirade on the “outsider versus native” narrative. “Punjab Punjabian da” ( Punjab belongs to Punjabis) goes the new Akali rallying cry. The reference to the Delhi chief minister’s Haryanvi ancestry is in the contest of Punjab’s long-standing water and territorial disputes with Haryana. Such a parochial pitch overlooks the fact that Punjabis, by nature, are a great risk takers.
What’s stoking the mood for change is a mixture of aspirations and anger. There is no denying the big-ticket development agenda – the prime calling card of SAD-BJP combine’s poll campaign — has made a difference. In last ten years, Punjab has seen surplus power, mega infra projects, a huge heritage makeover and a social welfarism to the extent that 80% of one of richest states is the beneficiary of the subsided ‘atta-dal’ scheme . But, then, the iconic ‘Yeh dil maange more’ tagline holds more true for Punjabis than Pepsi.
All this, coupled with pre-poll sops of 30,000 jobs and the jettisoning of unpopular MLAs, hasn’t soothed the public ire. Truth be told, resonating in the grassroots discourse across poll-bound Punjab is the theme of arrogance of power that manifested itself in the patronage to myriads of mafias, the brazen promotion of the Badals’ business interests, misuse of police and even arm-twisting of the media.
Worryingly for the Akalis, there is a disquiet even on the Panthic turf – their power bedrock – over incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib and the misuse of Sikh institutions for political ends. The ruling Badals are seen as the focal point of anti-incumbency. This last election of 89-year-old patriarch Parkash Singh Badal will test whether his son and heir apparent can keep up his winning streak . This is what holds the key to a smooth dynastic succession in the 96-year-old regional party.
Akalis may be down but are certainly not out. Apart from the Modi magic to swing the urban voters, they are counting on Sukhbir’s genius for a ‘split-and-scrape-through’ strategy by propping up vote-splitters from the Congress and AAP dissidents. The Congress is scenting a victory, but its campaign is yet to gather momentum.
In today’s Punjab, there are no clear winners. Unless the breeze turns into a wind (‘hawa’) in the next three weeks, the state which has always voted decisively could well be heading for another historic first – a split mandate.