All set for a big surprise

170204 - Oped - Punjab pollsIllustration: Keshav

170204 - Oped - Punjab pollsIllustration: Keshav

Some distance from Ludhiana, as we walked around in a village mostly inhabited by the Jat Sikh community, two elderly brothers drove up to the gates of their home in their rickety white taxi van. The taxi had a sticker affixed to its windshield, bearing the words “Proud Akali” along with an image of weighing scales (the unmistakable symbol of Shiromani Akali Dal), and the home was adorned with Akali flags. These were traditional Akali voters.

We struck up a conversation with them, but it soon took a surprising turn. One of the brothers exclaimed in frustration, “I’ve always voted for the Akalis, but I’ve had it. I’m voting with jhaaru (broom, the symbol of the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP).” We queried further about the sources of frustration, but the answers were unfocussed. It was a general frustration, with growing drug use, corruption, and politics as usual, among other things. This is a common experience. Across Punjab, there is serious anger with the incumbent government, and many will desert the Akalis. But it is a form of anti-incumbency that is quite difficult to analyse, as very few can expound upon the reasons for their frustration.

A different kind of politics

Strong anti-incumbency in Punjab is not, in and of itself, surprising. Although the Akalis, along with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a junior partner, won re-election as the incumbent government in 2012, it was the first time in 40 years the incumbent government was able to do so. Cracks in the support for the current government were visible in 2014. While much of the country was riding the “Modi wave,” the Akali-BJP combine ceded a lot of electoral territory to the Congress and the AAP.

But why are people upset? Despite some economic stagnation, Punjab is noticeably more well off than most of the rest of the country from a development perspective. The roads are largely paved and smooth throughout the State, even in the villages, and power cuts are basically a thing of the past. Government welfare programmes have also provided for effectively free electricity on farm land and the popular “atta-dal scheme” provides 5 kg of wheat per person per month, for only ₹2 per kg to those in need. These are the sorts of achievements that win parties election after election in other parts of India. Even the party faithful of the Akalis seem genuinely baffled by their unpopularity after the party’s development record.

Economic challenges in Punjab do not seem to animate State politics. The Punjabi voter seems to be truly concerned about politicians qua governance actors

For much of the country, politics revolves around whether large, tangible goods, such as roads, can be delivered. But this singular focus on delivery can lead to perverse consequences. India has recently experienced a striking rise in crorepatis among members of Parliament (MPs), from around 300 in 2009 to over 440 in 2014. As political scientist Milan Vaishnav has argued, many voters are willing to vote for such candidates, even if they have criminal backgrounds, due to their superior ability to deliver benefits, irrespective of whatever other baggage it may bring.

This may once have characterised Punjab’s politics, but things have changed. Many voters have grown tired of the alleged corruption surrounding the ruling Badal family and, rightly or wrongly, also hold them responsible for the growing drug problem in the State. Punjab’s corruption is not akin to the kind of corruption seen in other States where government contracts and grants are syphoned off by politicians. The Badal family is seen as being personally invested in promoting its own businesses and outsourcing major public goods to friends and relatives. The tolls on roads, a private bus network, a cess on sand used for building houses are a few examples of services being contracted out to private players — mostly linked back to the Badals. It is also true that Punjab, at 31.4% for 2015-2016, now has the second highest estimated debt to gross state domestic product (GSDP) ratio of non-special category States in India according to the Reserve Bank of India. But apart from the usual concern of jobs, economic challenges in Punjab do not seem to animate State politics.

Post-material politics

The Punjabi voter seems to be truly concerned about politicians qua governance actors, demonstrating a measure of “post-material” preferences. It is no wonder that, outside of Delhi, Punjab is the one State where the AAP has done well. The emergence of post-material politics is not a simple question of economic wealth; for instance, a wealthy State like Maharashtra doesn’t seem as receptive to such concerns. Rather, these are political preferences borne of the ideological cross-fertilisation from a mobile Punjabi public (especially with respect to Delhi), as well as a highly entrepreneurial population that is sensitive to the disruption caused by low-quality governance. Consistent with this principle, unlike the mixed reviews elsewhere in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation exercise was universally panned by voters in our discussions, irrespective of political leanings.

In the previous State election, in 2012, the AAP had yet to come on the scene, so those results are of little use in understanding electoral dynamics in the upcoming Punjab election. But the 2014 Lok Sabha election results can provide insights because it was a legitimately three-cornered fight between the AAP, the Congress, and the Akali-BJP alliance. Most analysts have focussed on aggregate vote shares for the three parties/coalitions in 2014, with the Akali-BJP combine securing 35% of the vote, the Congress 33%, and the AAP 24%. But these percentages mask very close competition at the assembly constituency (AC) level and huge regional variation.

Extending the base

Parsing the 2014 results by AC segment, a complicated picture emerges. The Akali-BJP combine won 45 AC segments, the Congress 37, and the AAP 33. From this perspective, the contest between the Congress and the AAP was much closer. Much like the BJP at the national level, the AAP did a good job in converting its votes into seats in Punjab. This is because its success was highly regionally concentrated. Punjab can be broken into three regions, Doaba, Majha, and Malwa. Malwa with 69 ACs is the largest region, while Doaba and Majha have 23 and 25 ACs, respectively. The AAP won 31 of its 33 AC segments in Malwa (and the other two in Doaba). The relative success or failure of the AAP will depend on whether it can extend beyond the base it built in 2014; anecdotally, the AAP seems to have done so.

In Kapurthala district, we talked to a carrot farmer from the Kamboj Sikh community next to his home, once again accoutred with flags bearing weighing scales, but he was also voting for the AAP. He summed up his views with what seemed like a common refrain, “They’re all the same; they are all corrupt. I want a change. If I don’t like what I see after five years, I’ll switch to someone else.” This sort of demand for wholesale change is consistent with the governance-related preferences described above, and the AAP would seem to be the biggest beneficiary from it. For instance, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, at least 87% of candidates for each of the Akalis, the BJP, and the Congress are crorepatis, while significantly fewer candidates for the AAP (63%) are crorepatis.

Political legacy

But in the next neighbourhood, in the same village, we met a group of Scheduled Caste Mazhabi Sikh voters. There were no AAP posters or flags here, and the voters had barely heard of the party. They described themselves as a committed base of voters: “We have voted for the Congress ever since Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. It is the only party that looks after the vulnerable.” Few people realise that Punjab has the largest Scheduled Caste population in India, at 32%, and many Scheduled Castes are viewed as being a party of a committed core of Congress voters. The AAP simply does not have the legacy or the reach of the Congress Party in Punjab, and unless it significantly increases it reach from 2014 with all communities, it will find it difficult to defeat the Congress in this election.

Punjabi voters are quite tight-lipped about political preferences, and the 2017 Punjab election may throw up a surprise. If there is indeed serious anti-incumbency, the final results will likely rest on how previous and current supporters of the Akali-BJP combine assess the other two major parties. Whether sincerely moving away from the incumbent coalition, or strategically voting for the preferred party between the AAP and the Congress, this mass of voters will have decisive power in this election.

Bhanu Joshi, Ashish Ranjan and Neelanjan Sircar, who also contributed to this article, are all affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2022 1:36:26 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead//article62113699.ece