Rebels are likely to queer the pitch for seasoned candidates across parties, reports Sarabjit Pandher

The result for elections to the 117-member Punjab Assembly, polling for which is scheduled in a single phase on January 30, could well be determined by the performance of the mega spoilers. The third front or Sanjha Morcha — led by the People's Party of Punjab (PPP), BSP and the rebels of different parties — is likely to queer the pitch for many a stalwart. The PPP was floated almost a year ago by former Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal, an estranged nephew of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.

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With political parties across the board preferring “winnability” of their candidates over commitment to party ideology, there have been widespread revolts across the state — something unprecedented in Punjab politics.

The ruling Akali-BJP alliance faces breakaway factions in over a dozen places, while the Congress has rebels pitted against it in nearly 30 seats. While keen triangular contests are expected at most places, multi-cornered contests are bound to take place in a number of constituencies and keep psephologists on their toes.

A typical situation has arisen for the octogenarian Badal, who faces challenge from his own kin on his home turf in Lambi constituency of Muktsar district. Mr Badal, fondly referred to as ‘Pash', is locked in a triangular contest with his brother, Gurdas Singh Badal, known more popularly as ‘Das', who has been fielded by his son's PPP. The Congress has fielded yet another Badal, Mahesh Inder Singh, who is the Chief Minister's cousin, from that seat. In the 2007 polls, when “Pash” and “Das” were together, Mr Parkash Singh Badal managed to defend his seat by about 9,000 votes, a narrow margin keeping in mind his long career spanning over five decades.

In the previous two elections to the Assembly, spoilers played a major role in deciding the results. In 2002, the Akali Dal-BJP combine, with a 36.75 per cent vote share, managed just 44 seats and was voted out; while the Congress, in alliance with the CPI, bagged 64 seats with a combined share of 37.96 per cent. Preceding that election, the State saw the emergence of Sarb Hind Shiromani Akali Dal (SHSAD), led by former president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) G.S. Tohra. The breakaway Akali outfit claimed 4.65 per cent votes.

In subsequent elections, the Akali-BJP alliance returned to power following a rapprochement between the Akali factions, while the Congress and CPI parted ways.

In 2007, the Akali Dal and the BJP in alliance accounted for 45.40 per cent votes which translated into 67 seats, while the Congress, despite increasing its vote percentage to 40.94, remained at 44 seats. The BSP and the CPI polled 4.10 per cent and 0.75 per cent respectively.

The BSP had fielded 115 candidates, of whom an overwhelming majority forfeited their deposits. But at 16 places, the BSP contestants polled more votes than the margin by which the Congress lost the respective seats.

However, drawing parallels between the emergence of the PPP and the SHSAD could lead to fallacious situations, as PPP founder Manpreet Singh Badal never tried to mould his organisation in the Panthic mode. He has attempted to reach out to the youth and the educated sections of the Punjabi society which seemed to have distanced themselves from the “traditional” Akali Dal. The PPP's alliance with the Left parties could rather lead to depletion of the Congress share in various pockets.

Another aspect of the prevailing scenario relates to the complete absence of any emotional appeal in the electioneering. Akali Dal leaders, in particular, are not heard airing the issues related to the Sikh identity or their favourite anti-Centre rhetoric.

The party's new leadership, which has emerged over the last two decades, is dwelling on more modern issues like infrastructure development and growth rates, previously the preserve of the Congress, which is now seen delving into a more “rustic” campaign to make inroads into the countryside.

Further, the demographic transition and the recent delimitation have compelled political parties to go in for their own social engineering.

The Akali Dal, despite its alliance with the BJP, had fielded 11 Hindus as their own candidates. The Akali Dal-BJP alliance candidates also include a former police chief, P.S. Gill; at least three bureaucrats including the CM's former Principal Secretary D.S. Guru; and former captain of Indian hockey team Pargat Singh.

The Congress, on the other hand, has fielded popular folk singer Mohammed Sadiq and professionals from different fields.

With these factors coming into play and in consonance with the national mood in the post Anna Hazare agitation, voters of Punjab could well be choosing a political arrangement that infuses confidence of providing governance, instead of using incumbency as a scale. Any vote for change would not necessarily mean choosing between the “lesser of the evils.”

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StatewiseJanuary 21, 2012