An election of many firsts

“‘Unlike the Akalis and the Congress, the AAP is not saddled with historical baggage but it has no historical advantage either.”  

Electoral politics in Punjab bucked an established trend when the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance overcame anti-incumbency in the 2012 Assembly elections. The Sikh-dominated SAD won the elections on a plank of development, a non-panthic pitch and effective use of ‘social engineering’ whereby 11 urban Hindus and 21 Scheduled Castes won on Akali tickets.

However, in the 2014 general election, the anti-incumbency towards Akalis at the State level and the Congress at the Centre gave a fillip to a third political formation, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which ended up winning four Lok Sabha seats. It was a warning to the Congress and the SAD-BJP to reform or perish. The 2017 Assembly elections will demonstrate whether these established parties have reformed, or the AAP has joined their bandwagon.

‘Menufestos’ and celebrities

Punjab is witnessing a phase in which politics has become a matter of popular ratings of leaders (in any sphere) and not political parties; blatant promises to send competing leaderships to jail for their perceived or alleged misdeeds rather than activating and institutionalising the justice delivery system; empty or false promises (like debt waiver for farmers, one government job for each family); and trivialisation of the political agenda.

In line with the precedent set during the general election and the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections, the overall approach this time in Punjab has been to use a cocktail of doles and promises containing something for everyone — ‘menufestos’ rather than a manifesto, with menu cards for farmers, traders, students, Dalits, industrialists, women, etc. >The ‘credit’ for this goes to the AAP, with a focus on how the leader is perceived by the voters.

Another distinct feature is that with a discredited political class, there is competition among political parties to poach singers, comedians, journalists, human rights activists to look credible. Earlier, these celebrities were used to gather crowds for politicians; now many of them have transformed themselves into politicians.

Also, for the first time in Punjab’s electoral history, all three main contestants have hired professional managers to connect them with the people. Elections are being treated as events, where voters have to be ‘managed’. This has liberated political parties from holding any ideological position.

A high-stakes election

Historically, Punjab elections have been a bipolar affair. The main opposition is supposed to be the major beneficiary of any anti-incumbency vote. However, this time there is also the AAP and a third front consisting of AAP dissenters, wayward Akalis, religious figures and ‘do-gooder’ politicians. All three major political formations have high stakes. The Congress will look to its performance in Punjab to signal a resurgence at the national level after the low of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. For the AAP, a victory in Punjab would provide the much-needed fodder to Arvind Kejriwal’s ambition to launch himself in 2019 as a prime ministerial candidate. For the Akalis, it is a fight for survival and to save their alliance with the BJP.

As a consequence, there are claims and counterclaims; a showcasing of performance versus promise of a golden performance; efforts to impress voters that each party represents, if not the antithesis of the other, at least a different agenda and style of governance. But scratch the paint of rhetoric and the work of event managers, and each looks like a carbon copy of the other.

Unlike the Akalis and the Congress, the AAP is not saddled with historical baggage but it has no historical advantage either — the Congress and the Akalis have a regional orientation which the AAP is yet to develop. Another AAP disadvantage is that unlike Delhi, Punjab does not have a large ‘footloose’ population — people have resided there for generations, with their own culture and history. The only advantage the AAP has is its anti-drug and anti-corruption political stance. How far it will help the party to win is a moot point.

Further, the Supreme Court judgment on November 10 quashing the 2004 Act passed by the Punjab legislature to deny Haryana its share of water has added another dimension to the political theatrics. How voters will respond to the ruling SAD’s open defiance of the verdict, and the resignations of Congress legislators from the Punjab Assembly and its State unit president Amarinder Singh from Parliament in protest, remains to be seen. Interestingly, the Act passed by the Congress-run government in Punjab in 2004 did not result in the party losing Assembly elections in Haryana in 2005, nor did it help the party retain power in Punjab in 2007. In a way, after decades of the water-sharing dispute, people have become indifferent to political rhetoric, judicial diversions and administrative ad-hocism.

An assessment survey in Punjab by the Institute for Development and Communication in October 2016 found that one-third of voters approve of the SAD-BJP government’s performance on issues but rated its top leadership negatively. In the case of the Congress, they view its leader, Amarinder Singh, positively, but the party’s electoral agenda less favourably compared to that of the Akalis and the AAP. A large section of those surveyed identified with AAP’s anti-drug, anti-corruption agenda but rate Mr. Singh higher than Mr. Kejriwal or AAP parliamentarian Bhagwant Mann.

If these findings are to be believed, the hired professional managers have a real challenge on their hands. When a political party’s DNA, leadership choices and agenda are undercutting each other, what can hired managers project for their clients to win? Neither the leaderships nor the political parties have the capacity to pull the votes required on their own. Thus the predilection to pick faceless politicians and celebrities as candidates based on their ‘winnability’ in what are likely to be five-cornered contests. This is symptomatic of erosion of the ideological support base of parties, political leadership deficit and absence of a transformational agenda.

Pramod Kumar is Director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 2:45:20 PM |

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