The unprecedented victory in Punjab has come as a major morale booster for the Congress party, which has been struggling since its debacle in the 2014 general election followed by a series of defeats in the States where it once held power. Punjab may not be a large State in terms of the number of Lok Sabha constituencies, but as a borderland, Sikh majority State with a troubled past, it is much more important than the numbers speak.
Looking at the massive victory of the Congress, it is quite clear that the party has not only been able to manage its traditional support base that comes from both Hindus and Sikhs but also from rural and urban Punjab across the three electoral regions. It also got the traditional Akali supporters’ vote that was supposed to go to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) due to Operation Blue Star as well as the anti-Sikh riots, followed by widespread human rights violations targeting Sikh youth. The fact that the AAP failed to gain significant support in the southern Malwa region shows that the party has been unable to corner the anti-Akali vote as this belt has been buffeted by large-scale farmer indebtedness, cash crop failures and farmer suicides. The Akalis have lost their traditional voters due to the party being held responsible for taking away the autonomy of the sacred Akal Takht and politicising/manipulating the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to further its political ends. The party’s failure to punish the culprits who desecrated the holy Guru Granth Sahib has been another reason. This was compounded by the party openly hobnobbing with the various Deras including the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda and seeking their support in search of the sizeable Dalit vote, a segment the party failed to accommodate in its power structure.
Losing the plot
The Congress’s massive victory is also due to the failure of the AAP to cash on its impressive debut in 2014 when the party not only got 24% of the vote share but also led in 33 Assembly constituencies when it was not considered a party that could win. However, instead of presenting itself as a real alternative, AAP’s Delhi-based leadership allowed the dominance of the non-Punjabi leadership during the whole process of campaigning and also resorted to reckless expulsion of its Punjab State leaders and workers on flimsy charges. This not only demoralised the party workers but also disenchanted regionally rooted Punjabi voters. In the Congress’s Amarinder Singh, these voters looking for change saw not only the possibility of getting rid of the corrupt Akali government but also a sense of continuity in the form of a stable government led by a strong, experienced Punjabi leader with a relatively clean image. He had stood up to the Congress top leadership on regional issues such as the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal.
The AAP also suffered in terms of resources as well as a lack of knowledge of the relevant social and economic determinants at the constituency/booth levels, which are important, as local issues and factors dominated the elections. It showed as the party focussed on as many as 69 seats in the Malwa region in the hope of a sweep and in the process ignored the other two electoral regions — 25 seats in Majha and 23 seats in the Doaba regions. As the result shows, the party failed to sweep the Malwa region, winning only 18 seats, got only two seats from Doaba and no seat from Majha. Nevertheless, the AAP as the main Opposition party is a good omen for the beleaguered State fighting not only economic decline but also the drug menace and crime. The party has shown that it can effectively use social media and mobilise youth to pressure the Congress government to fulfil its poll promises and set right governance. The AAP effect was visible in the Congress’s manifesto and during the campaign.
Ashutosh Kumar is Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University