In Punjab, debates on development and governance pushed identity politics and mud-slinging off the electoral stage.
For most pollsters, elections are purely a matter of incumbency levels, popularity ratings — that too of leaders not parties — and vote swings emerging from the role of individual candidates with a sprinkling of “Sidhuisms.” Real-life elections, however, do not lend themselves to such easy analysis, especially in Punjab. The arenas of politics here are the village, family, cultural spaces like melas and festivals, and religious deras and sects. These arenas transcend religious and caste barriers. In this sense, the political culture of Punjab is indeed unique. There is no concept of ideological puritanism. Political parties merge and enter into coalitions irrespective of their ideological claims. At the village level, factions shift their loyalty in opposition to the other. And members of these factions are mobile, depending on their convenience. Their political affiliations in no way dilute their kinship and village ties. Most families have representation in both political parties, the Congress and the Akalis. Thus, politics becomes subordinate to the cultural landscape.
Politics is an integral part of cultural festivity. There are more than a dozen melas where political diwans are held by different political parties to present their messages to the people. Deras and sects have also been lending their support to political parties as per their contextual preference. Prominent among these are the Damdami Taksal, Radhaswami Beas, Sacha Sauda, the Namdharis, Nirankaris and a string of localised sects. These distinct features, in a way, lend a composite cultural flavour to an otherwise divisive politics and draw the boundaries beyond which political parties find it difficult to go in settling scores with political opponents.
The 2012 Assembly elections in Punjab functioned within these distinct features and also marked a major departure from identity-based politics. The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP alliance did not raise issues relating to identity politics. Their major emphasis was on development and governance reforms The SAD made no emotional appeals about danger to the “Sikh Panth,” there was no frenzy against followers of the Dera Sacha Saudha as was done before the 2009 Parliament elections. Instead, the message that reverberated was that the protection of the rights of religious groups and the practice of electoral democracy are the only insurance against violent sectarian political articulations.
The shaping of the electoral agenda around development and reform built on the record of the alliance government, which had taken a number of steps to build trust with citizens and address productivity deficits in governance. These included the Right to Service Act, 2011 and the abolition of affidavits (except where required by law), with self-declarations taking their place. The Congress party failed to provide a superior alternative to this. It raised the rhetoric of corruption by branding SAD and BJP leaders as venal, without promising a practical solution to fight corruption and harassment in the citizen's everyday interaction with government.
Ironically, this emphasis on governance did not deter parties — especially the SAD — from raining sops on the poor, the middle class, youth, Dalits, women. This time there were promises of free electricity to farmers, free laptops for students, cable connections for Rs.100 and subsidised atta-dal. Of course, all these goodies come neatly packaged in market-driven governance in which subsidies are given, for instance, to private health providers and people are exhorted to mind their own health.
Another dynamic in the 2012 election was the presence of mega spoilers, most of which worked to the disadvantage of the Congress. Apart from rebel candidates, the presence of a third front, Sanjha Morcha, proved costly. At the core of the Sanjha Morcha was the People's Party of Punjab (PPP) of Akali rebel Manpreet Badal. The PPP proved to be a wild card. It secured around five per cent of the votes, which affected the fortunes of Congress candidates in around 13 constituencies. The Bahujan Samaj Party was another spoiler. It secured around four per cent of the votes, as in 2007, adversely affecting the Congress in more than 10 constituencies.
In this election, anti-incumbency vis-à-vis the Central government functioned to the advantage of the BJP. The vote share of the BJP, no doubt, has declined from eight per cent to seven per cent, but it could win 12 seats. The SAD increased its seats in rural and semi-urban areas and maintained its position in urban areas as compared to 2007. The Congress lost seats in rural areas, but increased its tally in semi-urban and urban areas.
There is an important lesson from the Punjab results for the national political parties. For the Congress, there is an urgent need to regionalise its organisation, agenda and leadership. Paradoxically, the Congress has to compete with a strong regional party, but within limits defined by its national leadership. The BJP has to evolve its own identity rather than function under the shadow of the SAD.
It is interesting to note that the regional parties are making concerted efforts to “nationalise” their politics. The issues raised by the SAD in their manifesto relate to centre-state relations; but the Congress manifesto is silent on these issues.
To sum up, electoral politics in Punjab has graduated from an emotional agenda based on caste, religion and quotas, unlike in Uttar Pradesh. The electorate seems to be fed up of mud-slinging theatrics. Development and governance dominated the electoral discourse like never before. In political terms, this is new terrain, one which political analysts and party managers both failed to read.
(The author is a Chandigarh-based political analyst and Director of the Institute for Development and Communication.)