Punjab is more than just another election

Patiala: Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi during a rally, ahead of the State Assembly elections, at Rajpura in Patiala, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (PTI Photo) (PTI01_07_2022_000174A)

Is the forthcoming Assembly election in post-1966 reorganised Punjab, its thirteenth, going to mark any significant deviation from the State’s long-term electoral trends and issues? For any discernible observer of Punjab politics, the trends have been as follows: presence of electoral regions, identity politics, competitive populism, ascendance of the State-level party and leadership, close contests, electoral volatility and pragmatic electoral alliances/coalition government. The issues that have remained with the State for over two decades include: ethnic peace, human security, endemic economic crisis in the post-Green Revolution phase, ecological crisis, institutionalised corruption and, more recently, an exodus of youth, drug menace, sacrilege, farm laws, among others.

On social assertion

While the issues are State-specific as elsewhere, in terms of trends, cross-State comparisons show the ‘exceptionalism’ of Punjab in the absence of the incremental transfer of political power to socially marginal communities through the electoral route. Assertion from below remains elusive despite nearly a third of the State population being from 39 Scheduled Castes (34 reserved seats out of 117 after the fourth delimitation exercise). And also when Dalits are comparatively economically well off.

And in terms of electoral participation, Punjab has registered numbers that are consistently more than the national average in recent elections. The sheer dominance of the landowning and numerically strong Jat Sikh community in Punjab politics is unparalleled when compared with the non-twice born land-owning dominant castes in other States (the Reddys, Khammas, Lingayats, Nayars, Vokkaligas, Kapus, to name a few). Barring Zail Singh, all the Chief Ministers and the leaders of most parties have been Jat Sikhs in the Punjabi Suba , a testament to the asymmetrical power structure that defines the State polity. Even caste Hindus and Khatri Sikhs have played second fiddle in the State’s politics.

Not much political traction

Punjab exhibits another ‘exceptional’ trend — in the inability of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in making electoral gains despite entering into a long-term alliance with the Akali Dal, a State party. One can refer to the fruitful alliances the BJP has stitched in different States in the past, i.e. the Biju Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress, the two Janata Dals (Secular and United), the Telugu Desam Party, the Shiv Sena, and the Asom Gana Parishad. Instead of gaining, the BJP has witnessed shrinking of its social constituency of urban trading/professional caste-Hindus. Confined to 23 constituencies, the party has gradually ceded a part of its urban upper caste base to the Congress, polling less than 9% of the vote in the last five Assembly elections.

There is much continuity visible in the present elections both in terms of the trends mentioned above and issues: new pragmatic alliances are now in place: BJP-Punjab Lok Congress-Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt); Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-Bahujan Samaj Party; parties are gung-ho about making tall, unrealistic promises and not seeking a vote on their past performances in government (for example, one has the ₹1,000 a month for every woman in the State that the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, ‘promises’). Identity politics is playing out along caste and communal lines (AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has declared that a Sikh would be the chief ministerial face of AAP; Sunil Jakhar of the Congress being denied chief ministership ostensibly for being a Hindu, and the Akali Dal promising a Dalit Deputy Chief Minister if voted to power).

In the Congress

Factionalism in the Congress is rife, with Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu fighting it out to be the chief ministerial face of the Congress. There is also Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa leading the Akali faction, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) against the official Akali Dal. The BJP has been raising the issue of national security, territorial integrity, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, which has now been taken up by the Punjab Lok Congress headed by Captain Amarinder Singh. Governance issues, the drug menace, corruption, unemployment and the mafia raj have now become the staple electoral issues. So this election is also witnessing both the SAD and the Congress blaming each other for not doing enough when in power.

Interestingly, the present Congress government led by Mr. Channi seems very keen to blame the government led by Captain Amarinder as if it was the Opposition government! The most vocal over these issues has been AAP — understandably so as it has never been in power in the State and was first off the block to raise the drug issue back in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Impact of farm laws

The run-up to the present election has, however, witnessed two recent developments which mark deviations in terms of trends and issues, thereby making it an unusual one. The year-long farmers’ movement against the three contentious farm laws has cast its shadow over State politics. Reeling under the threat of losing its core social constituency of the Jat Sikh landed peasantry, the Akali Dal broke up with the BJP (an alliance firmly in place since the 1990s). The breakup is likely to result in the loss of votes for both parties. While the BJP could lose the Akali rural Sikh vote, the Akali Dal could lose the much-needed Hindu vote that has allowed it to take on the Congress which has always had decent support among the Sikhs. The Akali Dal has suffered a dent (which can be called long term) in its image as being the farmers’ party due to its initial support for the farm laws. As for the Congress, it deftly kept away from the farmers’ wrath by mouthing support for the cause without getting directly involved.

The movement has paved the way for the formation of the Samyukta Samaj Morcha (SSM) by 22 farmers’ unions — the first such political initiative by the landowning Jat Sikh farmers in the State. The development has the potential to harm AAP which has been hoping again to receive former Akali voters (like in the 2017 election, especially in the Malwa region), who are disgruntled also over the sacrilege incidents involving Sikh holy scriptures and subsequent firing at protesters in 2015 when the Akali Dal was in power. The performance of the SSM may have electoral implications in a multi-cornered contest as in the last Assembly election, there were 16 constituencies where the margin of win was less than 2%.

The Dalit vote

In the long term, the movement has rekindled the focus on farmers’ issues and farmers are being seen as a distinct voting community. The elevation and installation of Mr. Channi as the first Dalit Chief Minister is also supposed to have far-reaching consequences. Even though he is an ‘accidental’ Chief Minister — as the Congress high command chose him only after powerful Jat Sikh leaders Navjot Singh Sidhu and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa cancelled out each other — the Congress is now betting on him to consolidate the Dalit vote, thus ensuring the party win. There are 54 constituencies where Dalits constitute more than 30% of the listed voters, which is a significant factor in this multi-cornered contest. The Dalit vote so far has remained fractured mainly along religious lines, going to the Congress and the Akali Dal, whereas the other claimant, the BSP, has been in a state of terminal decline, polling less than 5% of the vote and no seat in the last three and four Assembly elections, respectively.

Mr. Channi has been prudent enough so far not to challenge the existing social power structure, thus averting a possible counter-mobilisation of Jat Sikhs. Arguably, in case of a Congress win, it would be difficult to displace him — a fact that explains the restlessness of Mr. Sidhu. Mr. Channi is projecting himself as the original ‘aam aadmi’ who has risen from the ranks to take on a resurgent AAP. Irrespective of the results, uncertain due to so many parties in contention and given the State’s history of narrow margins in wins, Mr. Channi’s appointment has already opened up the political space so far dominated by Jat Sikhs.

Ashutosh Kumar is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | May 8, 2022 5:33:09 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/punjab-is-more-than-just-another-election/article38335785.ece