AMRITSAR: India’s ruling Congress party faces the first of a string of mid-term tests on Tuesday, when Punjab goes to the polls to elect a new state assembly.
Campaigning has been fierce, with some of the 1,050 candidates for Punjab’s 117-seat assembly—currently held by Congress—even roping in bar dancers to lure the northern state’s 16 million voters.
The Punjab election will be followed by votes on 14 February and 23 February in Manipur and Uttarakhand, both of which are also currently held by Congress. After that, all eyes will be on pivotal Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, which is currently held by the Samajwadi Party and goes to the polls at the end of May.
Defeat in the polls would deal a major blow to Congress and could mark the resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The polls, however, have no direct bearing on Parliament and the Congress-led government at the Centre.
Congress wrested power in Punjab in 2002, beating the then ruling combination of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP. “Punjab is crucial as results there will have a ripple effect on India’s seven other northern states, including UP, and hence this no-holds-barred campaigning going on there,” said political analyst Anand Ojha.
Bar dancers cast out from western Maharashtra last year have been recruited in hordes by Punjab hopefuls to woo potential voters to pre-poll campaign rallies, witnesses said.
“I made Rs1 lakh in just three days at these rallies, which is more than my month’s earnings,” said dancer Geeta.
Among the contestants are 45 millionaires, and topping the list is SAD candidate Jagir Kaur, with declared assets of more than Rs89 crore.“This sum belongs to a religious trust that I just oversee,” Kaur said, as her rivals accused her of splurging public funds to try and refurbish her party’s waning electoral fortunes in Punjab, India’s largest food bowl.
Analysts argued that gimmicks such as roping in dancers reflected the “desperation” of political parties—including Congress, which has a tenuous hold in the local legislature.
“These parties are bringing in all sorts of people in desperation because they have no political agenda to offer to the people,” said S.P. Singh, the former vice-chancellor of the state’s Guru Nanak Dev University.
Amar Nath, Punjab deputy chief election officer, said he had been helpless in tackling the unorthodox campaigning. “We are aware that contestants are bring in singers and dancers, which is not really in violation of India’s electoral codes,” Nath said in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, where campaigning halted on Sunday.
Some 4,000 wealthy overseas Indians are also campaigning in Punjab, the Indian Express reported, listing among them Darshan Singh Dhaliwal, who owns 1,500 petrol stations in the United States.
“The canvassing in Uttarakhand is not as intense as it is in Punjab,” said B.K. Dhar, a poll observer in the state, where 836 contestants are in the fray to grab 70 seats.
Congress, which leads a coalition administration in Manipur, was not taking any chances in the border state, where it will be pitched directly against BJP, analysts said.
“Congress will have to deal with the incumbency factor in Manipur, where the people are disgusted with trying to force New Delhi to take away the sweeping powers of the military,” analyst Ojha said.
Manipur, plagued by ethnic insurgencies, was rocked last year by violent protests following the rape and murder of a prominent rights activist that was allegedly carried out by soldiers. Vote counts in the three states—Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur—will begin on 27 February.