Narrative for change gets underway in Punjab

Supporters campaign for Jai Inder Kaur, daughter of Punjab Lok Congress president and former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh at Qila Chowk in Patiala on February 18, 2022.

Supporters campaign for Jai Inder Kaur, daughter of Punjab Lok Congress president and former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh at Qila Chowk in Patiala on February 18, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

As the high-pitched election campaign for the Punjab assembly elections, slated for February 20, came to a halt on Friday, a narrative about bringing a change in Punjab appears to have been set - surrounding this tale, the Aam Aadmi Party seems to have an edge of perception over its rivals in the electoral battle, even as the Shiromani Akali Dal is well within the reckoning making it a tough battle for the ruling Congress to retain its government.

The electoral battle in Punjab is expected to be a three-cornered fight in most assembly constituencies between Congress, the SAD, and the AAP. However, the entry of the Bharatiya Janta Party-Punjab Lok Congress-Shiromani Akali Dal (Sankyukt) alliance, besides the debut of farmer unions under the banner of ‘Samyukt Samaj Morcha’ (SSM) - an amalgamation of 22 Punjab based farmer outfits that actively participated against Centre controversial farm laws - has left the political battle arena wide open to be anybody game.

The Congress party, which is facing anti-incumbency has bet its fortune surrounding the ‘Dalit’ politics this time. Appointing Chanranjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister, who become the first from the Scheduled Caste community to hold the top post in the State after the Congress cornered Amarinder Singh into resigning from CMs post clearly indicated the party’s strategy for 2022 assembly polls. The party later declared Mr. Channi as its chief ministerial candidate as well. Punjab has close to 32% population of the Scheduled Caste community, the highest in the country while Jat Sikh population is over 20%. But since 1977, the State has never seen a non-Jat Sikh Chief Minister - be it of the Congress party or the Shiromani Akali Dal, indicating the political dominance of the Jat Sikh community. Giani Zail Singh was the last non-Jat Sikh Chief Minister of Punjab between 1972-77.

The appointment of a Dalit Chief Minister may have given a psychological spin to Dalits of Punjab, however, the cultural and regional difference between the Scheduled Castes, who are not a homogeneous category in Punjab may continue to remain and respond differently in elections. Also, if there’s a consolidation of Dalit votes in favour of the Congress, the possibility of the “reverse consolidation of Jats” can’t be ignored, which could eventually benefit the Shiromani Akali Dal, which after parting ways with the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has been intensively focusing on garnering the support of the farmers, who mostly happened to be Jat Sikhs. The Dalit card may give the Congress party advantage in some of the constituencies having a Scheduled Caste population. However, the SAD and the Bahujan Samaj Party alliance may be able to manage to neutralise in some constituencies. Besides, retaining the Hindu vote bank, that has traditionally been inclined towards the Congress is going to be a stiff task for the Congress - the reason is, over the years, the BJP has been contesting elections as a ‘junior partner’ in alliance with the SAD, which is seen as a ‘Panthic’ party and therefore the Hindu voters largely have been seen as inclined towards the Congress. But against the backdrop of the emergence of ‘polarisation’ politics lately, the Hindu votes could go to some extent side the BJP, especially in the urban areas.

The Shiromani Akali Dal after ending its coalition with the BJP amid farmers’ protests over the farm laws looks to be on the way of ‘course correction’ attempting to woo the farming community. Also, the focus of Shiromani Akali Dal has narrowed down to ‘‘Panthic’‘ (Sikh) issues in a clear attempt to garner the support of the Sikh community, for which the party claims to be a sole representative. In 2015, after the incident of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib at Bargari village of Faridkot district widespread spread protests were witnessed in the State and in the 2017 Assembly polls, it remained a key political issue, which was considered as one of the main reasons behind the ouster of Shiromani Akali Dal from the power. In 2022, the issue though has been intensively raised by the political parties, yet it seems the people have moved on and the party is hopeful of reviving its chance to wrest the power.

The AAP is selling its ‘Delhi model of governance’ and seeking ‘once chance’ from the voters to form the next government. The party is creating flutter among the rivals as several people could be seen longing for alternative politics. There’s is a lot of noise about bringing a change in Punjab, and surrounding this narrative the party is having an edge of perception over its rivals in the electoral battle. But will the clamour eventually translate into votes for the party is one big question. While the AAP has been asking voters to give the party ‘a chance’ against the ‘traditional’ parties, but with Samyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), led by farmers’ coming into the fray, which is not a ‘traditional’ party, the vote could get divided amongst them, as farmers’ are also seeking votes against ‘traditional’ parties – be it the Congress, SAD or the BJP.

The SSM could be a ‘spoiler’ for the other SAD, the Congress and the AAP at many seats. In the Malwa belt of the State, where the AAP has a relative foothold, the presence of SSM could split votes. In the Majha and Doaba region, the candidates of SSM could damage the electoral prospect of Shiromani Akali Dal as well as the Congress candidates.

The BJP is making attempts to garner the support of the Sikh community by presenting itself as the party, which during the past seven years in the Centre has worked towards the interests of Sikhs – be it surrounding initiative to start the Kartarpur corridor, which connects the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan with Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district, waiving of Goods and Services Tax (GST) from ‘langar’ (community kitchen) or granting Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registration to Gurdwara Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), enabling it to receive foreign donations.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2022 2:52:29 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/punjab-assembly/in-punjab-as-narrative-for-change-sets-in-aap-has-an-edge-of-perception-akali-dal-is-in-the-reckoning/article65062459.ece