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A result no one wants to call

The Congress has a charismatic leader in Captain Amarinder Singh, who had proved his popularity when he defeated Arun Jaitley at the height of the ‘Modi wave’. Mr. Singh at an election rally in Bathinda.   | Photo Credit: PTI

For the last half a century, since modern-day Punjab’s boundaries were drawn in 1966, it has always been a virtually bipolar electoral contest between the Congress and the alliance partners, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The political rivals have been swapping the seat of power after each election except the last time in 2012 when the SAD-BJP retained power.

With the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the fray this time, the political equations have changed as for the first time the State would witness a credible three-cornered contest. The rookie party had caused a major upset in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when it had bagged all its four seats from Punjab and had notched up a quarter of the vote share in the State.

The AAP had evidently benefitted from the anti-incumbency faced by both its political rivals — at the Centre, it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government which lost across the country after a decade in power while in Punjab, it was the simmering resentment built up against the SAD-BJP coalition government during its second successive term. It was the political vacuum in the State that the party had filled, coming out with flying colours.

AAP on a roller coaster

Sensing that its best prospects outside Delhi lay in Punjab, the party had been building a base in the State for more than a year. It formed ward-wise committees in almost all the Assembly constituencies much before its political rivals even began to think of the next elections. Party volunteers visited lakhs of households in the rural areas with the simple request that their poster or flag be displayed outside each house.

Thus by the time elections were formally announced earlier this month, the AAP had declared almost all its candidates and was way ahead with its campaign. In sharp contrast, the Congress, seeking to avenge its defeat in the previous State elections, was struggling to finalise candidates. Even as the nominations opened, the party was undecided on 40 of its 117 candidates. After dithering for nearly four months, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu also finally joined the party with barely 18 days of campaigning left.

 

For the AAP, however, it’s not been all hunky-dory. After being first off the blocks, the party stumbled over the last few months following infighting and allegations of corruption. Two of its four MPs were suspended after they spoke out against party supremo Arvind Kejriwal. The AAP faced another blow when its State convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who had built the party in the State, was sacked after allegations of corruption were levelled against him.

The party also faced severe criticism for setting up a committee of ‘outsiders’ for selection of candidates. There were also allegations against some members seeking sexual favours or indulging in corruption while selecting candidates. The lack of a ‘face’ or a chief ministerial candidate was again considered a factor that may go against the party.

However, the AAP is finding traction in the rural areas and the crucial Malwa belt, which has been the bastion of the Akalis, even though a section of the urban population appears to have turned away from it.

State of the big two

The Akalis and their alliance partner BJP are banking on what they claim to be their “developmental agenda”. The coalition government can claim credit for building infrastructure and making it a power-surplus State but there is palpable anger among the people for its failure to check corruption and the drug menace. There is an impression that the Akalis had encouraged lawlessness and condoned the high-handed attitude of its local leaders. The business interests of the Badals and their extended family have also come under close scrutiny. Moreover, the alienation of the “Panthic vote”, the core constituency of the Akalis, can cost them dear. The pardon granted to the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was charged with blasphemy, by the Sikh clergy controlled by the Badals and a series of acts of desecration of the Sikh holy book had led to palpable anger against them.

 

The Congress had lost the previous Assembly elections by a margin of under two percentage points. It was favoured to win and almost all opinion polls had predicted a victory for the party but it floundered due to its smugness, factionalism, poor distribution of tickets and lack of efforts to placate the rebels. It appears to have learnt no lessons. The delay in finalising its candidates again this time was due to infighting and various factions propping up their own candidates. As per latest reports, rebels have raised the banner of revolt in at least 30 constituencies.

For the Congress, whose graph has been declining across the country, Punjab is the best bet for a turnaround in its fortunes. It has a charismatic leader in Captain Amarinder Singh, who had proved his popularity when he defeated Arun Jaitley at the height of the ‘Modi wave’ in the general election and still enjoys widespread support. The party has also roped in election strategist Prashant Kishor, who was in charge of the election campaigns of Narendra Modi in 2014 and that of Nitish Kumar a year later in Bihar, to shape the Congress campaign in Punjab.

The likely three-way division of votes has confounded political observers and psephologists. They are all the more shying away from any predictions due to the fiasco last time.

 

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 8:31:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/A-result-no-one-wants-to-call/article17055949.ece

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