It is 4pm and the residents of Balpura village in Fatehgarh Sahib constituency in Punjab are stepping out of their houses, as the sun begins to set, to the village centre where the old and young sit to discuss the day’s activities. From the look of it, the village would seem like any other in the state, where farming is the dominant economic activity.
Ask the residents what the biggest issue is for them this election and Surinder Kaur, 45, silently points towards a group of young men, some fiddling with their phones while the others are just chatting with each other.
The men, in the age group of 20-35, are educated—some are college graduates, others are post-graduates and one of them is a PhD—but jobless and with little hope of finding one.
“We are uneducated but thought that could change for our sons and got them educated. Political parties promise them jobs but there are no industries here. They promise better facilities such as water, sewerage connections, and quality healthcare but after elections it all stays the same. Our children have to go back to being labourers in farms, despite so much education. When they have no work to do, drug use and petty crime will increase," Kaur said.
Voters across the Lok Sabha constituencies of Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala, and Sangrur, among the 13 seats in Punjab that go to poll on Sunday, point to the lack of jobs and the fact that political parties only pay lip service to the cause of generating employment.
The state is seeing a contest between the Congress, which is banking on the organizational strength of the local leadership, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Punjab is divided into three main regions. Malwa, the largest, accounts for 11 of the 22 districts in the state, including Patiala. Majha is a Sikh stronghold, while the third, Doaba, accounts for a majority of the Scheduled Caste population in the state. In the 2014 elections, the SAD-BJP alliance won five seats, while the Congress and AAP won four seats each.
According to the 66th round of the National Sample Survey, 42 out of every 1,000 people in Punjab are unemployed, compared with 25 at the all-India level. As much as 63% of the state’s population lives in rural areas and agriculture provides employment to 36% of the states population. Agriculture and allied sectors contributed 24% to the state gross domestic product in 2018-19, according to state economic survey 2018-19.
The Lok Sabha elections are being held two years after the Congress came to power in the state, ousting the two-term SAD government. The Congress promised farm loan waivers, increasing number of jobs and mobile phones to the state’s youth. While the government led by chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh continues to remain popular, voters say that the pace of work under the government is slow.
“Patiala is a raje da shehar (Patiala is a city of kings). Captain Amarinder Singh is known for his organizational skills. Akali Dal has been reduced to the third position here. We want (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi back for five years at the centre but in Punjab, the Congress is stronger because people still have anger against the Akali Dal and they are the primary alliance partner of the BJP in the state," said Gurdeep Singh, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in Patiala, where Amarinder Singh’s wife Preneet Kaur is contesting the elections.
Modi is popular in the state, but the SAD is struggling to build a positive narrative. SAD is contesting 10 seats and the BJP is contesting three in Punjab.
Two years after being voted out of power, SAD still faces allegations related to the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also brought up the issue while addressing a rally in Bhatinda. “The soul of Punjab will be lost if anything happens to Guru Granth Sahib. Their (BJP’s) own ally indulged in sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib for political gains and votes," she said.
“It’s not like the Akalis have not done anything for Punjab. There has been development of roads. Opposition parties in the centre do not have a prime ministerial candidate or a strong narrative. The BJP government at the centre has taken tough decisions such as the one over the Balakot attacks, implementation of the goods and services tax, and demonetization," said Aditya Jindal, 25, who runs a chemist store in Sadar Bazaar in Sangrur.
Punjab also has one of the highest rates of migration in India. “Politicians don’t solve problems. The central government has not tried to do any work in Punjab. The Congress government in the state is just starting out. We want to get jobs so we can buy mobile phones for ourselves. In such a situation, the ‘None of The Above’ option seems to be best," said Inderjeet Singh Kaur, 29, who is appearing for her final examination to become a chartered accountant. Kaur, who has seen relatives abroad get better opportunities, is also applying to migrate out of the country.
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