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Ground report: The choices before Punjab

Congress leaders Navjot Singh Sidhu and Rahul Gandhi with Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi during their visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar ahead of state assembly elections. (Photo: AFP)Premium
Congress leaders Navjot Singh Sidhu and Rahul Gandhi with Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi during their visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar ahead of state assembly elections. (Photo: AFP)

  • Unlike 2017, no single political party may be able to make a clean sweep in this elections
  • Only one aspect is clear, thus far. Punjab is in a state of flux. In a contest between Congress and AAP, there could be a hung assembly where other parties might play the king-maker

BENGALURU : In Punjab, winter rains are unlike stormy monsoons. The sky drips slowly and continuously and you can feel the cold in your bones. When in moderation, the rains soften the earth and is good for growing Rabi crops. It is different this time, though. The incessant rains this election season have turned the earth soggy and is destroying standing crops. The harvest is already in a shambles.

The political environment is no different as Punjab heads into assembly polls in less than two weeks. There is a problem of plenty: There are too many political parties in the fray and people aren’t sure what the political harvest would yield.

Traditionally, akin to the monoculture type of farming practised in the agrarian state that sows paddy and wheat, Punjab has had two parties for a long time: Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). In 2017, a new party made its entry: Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This year, the number of parties has diversified. Disgruntled Congressman and former chief minister Amarinder Singh has formed Punjab Lok Congress and tied up with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and some Akali leaders. There is the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), a farmers’ union party, which, like AAP wants to change Punjab’s politics.

People, however, point to an irony: Until last December, Punjab led an over-a-year long farmers’ protest against the Centre’s farm laws. While the Centre said farmers would have had the freedom to sell their produce to any buyer outside the state-regulated wholesale markets, farmers feared the laws would end in a corporate takeover of their land and stockpiling of farm produce. They were pitted against an elected government at the centre, but displayed acute political consciousness and resolve. That forced the government to agree to their demands. The laws were ultimately repealed.

The irony: soon after the protests, the farmers found themselves in the midst of an election. They are supposed to elect a government but may find it hard to make it accountable. This scepticism is palpable when one talks to farmers.

“This has been going on since the British left. It suits the state to ignore people’s real power and distract people through empty ritual of elections," says Harinder Kaur Bindu, general secretary of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan). “Do you remember how militancy ended in 1992? By calling for elections. Only 23% voted, but a government was formed. Calling elections is how the state keeps a cover on who really exploits people–the entire political class."

The political soup

The SAD-BJP government, whose regime ended in 2017, was mired in controversies, with allegations that the control of the state resources had shifted to mafias in sand, gravel, transport and liquor even as the drug menace continued unabated.

Incidents related to the sacrilege of holy books and places of worship, and the killing of two protesters at the Behbal Kalan police firing fuelled the simmering discontent in the state—in October 2015, the police opened fire at people protesting against the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Congress won the 2017 polls not just because of the SAD-BJP anti-incumbency, but also because its then leader Captain Amarinder Singh swore on the Sikh holy text to solve Punjab’s woes. The new entrant AAP was viewed with a lot of cynicism, particularly as it was hobnobbing with those projected as Khalistan sympathizers. The Maur Mandi blast was another reason that drove many urban Hindus to vote for the Congress.

Congress candidate Harminder Singh Jassi had just finished his poll campaign on 31 January 2017, three days before the last elections, when a powerful bomb blast rocked Maur Mandi near Bathinda. Seven people, including minors were killed in the blast, and 14 were injured.

Despite promising to rid the state of the twin evils of corruption and drug menace, the Congress did nothing after coming to power. So far, there have been two judicial commissions, three police investigations as well as a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the incidents of sacrilege and police firing. Similarly, the Maur Mandi blast probe is hanging fire.

The Congress also went back on its promise of waiving loans of farmers and labourers. Farm loans have been a sensitive issue in the state. Much of the Congress inactivity has not gone unnoticed, so much so that when Captain Amarinder Singh was recently diagnosed with covid-19 and declared that he would isolate himself, some people asked: “But didn’t you isolate yourself for the last 4.5 years?"

Though the Akalis have broken their almost 25-year-old alliance with the BJP now, farmers say that the party initially supported the farm laws. To get the Dalit vote—32% of the population, SAD has aligned with the Bahujan Samaj Party this time and even promised a Dalit deputy chief minister.

As for AAP, Sangeet Toor, a journalist and activist, says that Punjab continues to feel AAP does not represent its interests because of Arvind Kejriwal’s operating style. “AAP is conducting tiranga yatras and peace marches to project Punjab as a disturbed area. People view it as a matter of Punjab’s honour. People are wary of Kejriwal who, as the head of AAP and chief minister of Delhi, supported abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, notified one of the three farm laws, and is ambiguous over the release of Sikh political prisoners," she says.

Over the last year and a half, owing to anger against the farm laws, BJP had become persona non grata in the state. It has got a new lease of life after a tie-up with Captain’s Punjab Lok Congress. The recent defections from Congress to the BJP and its ticket distribution are indicative of the party gaining traction, at least among elite Sikhs and urban Hindus—about 40% of Punjab.

While SSM believes it should attempt to change politics from within, its parent organization, Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), is not impressed. The union body would prefer continuing as a pressure group and remain non-committal to elections.

Communist parties that are part of SSM are fielding candidates under their flag. It needs to be seen how SSM fares when it represents only one constituency—farmers—and does not have enough presence among both Dalits and urban voters, or in Majha and Doaba regions.

Realpolitik

Late last year, Congress decided on some face-saving measures. It appointed Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Pradesh Congress chief. He was responsible for the ouster of Captain Amarinder Singh as the Congress chief minister. To counter the Akalis, Congress appointed a Dalit face, Charanjit Singh Channi, to the post of chief minister. It was a bold step and signalled a big change.

Channi got 111 days to govern. One of his first moves was to lay the foundation stone for a museum on Babasaheb Ambedkar. He granted funds to educational institutions and announced various welfare programmes: waiver of pending water and electricity bills, reduction in tariffs on electricity and water, cut in sand rates, and sops for police and sportspersons, among others. Channi’s image got a boost on 5 January when Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his Firozepur rally citing security concerns. Channi strongly defended Punjab and won admirers across the board.

Yet, the issue with Congress is that former cricketer and opening batsman Sidhu is not seen as much of a team player. He is constantly at loggerheads with Channi. By anointing Channi as the party’s chief minister candidate, Congress has shifted the narrative from Aam Aadmi (common man) to Garib Aadmi (poor man)—that many see as an indication of the fall of Punjab which was the country’s number one developed state a few decades back. It now needs to be seen how Sidhu projects Congress as a united house.

Before declaring Bhagwant Mann as the chief minister candidate, AAP’s slogan was: ‘The whole of Punjab is with Kejriwal.’ It was an assertion but when SSM came up as an alternative in Malwa, Kejriwal was piqued. Now, the slogan has changed to: ‘Punjab will not be cheated again’.

The Congress has appropriated Sikh prayers to coin its slogan: ‘Punjab Di Chardi Kala, Congress Mange Sarbat Da Bhala’—high spirited Punjab seeks welfare of the world’. Sikh bodies have objected to it and the Election Commission’s word is awaited.

Meanwhile, the contest between two commoners leading the two major parties—Mann and Channi—signals a huge departure from how until now the state has practised elitist politics.

Channi’s image suffered a blow when the Enforcement Directorate recently raided his nephew over sand mining and found 6 crore cash in the latter’s possession. The Akalis had their share of problems, when, in December 2021, the Punjab police filed a case against senior leader Bikram Singh Majithia under the Narcotics and Psychotropic Act on the basis of a report by the Special Task Force. Now, the Supreme Court has extended Majithia’s detention until after the elections. While Captain Amirinder Singh keeps taking pot-shots at Sidhu, the Akalis have declared that it will be Majithia who will take on Sidhu in Amritsar East.

“These are the first elections where traditional Punjab-centric issues—Satluj Yamuna Link canal , Chandigarh, Punjabi-speaking areas, 1984 riots, etc—are not being raised by any of the main parties," political analyst professor Harjeshwarpal Singh says. “Instead, the main issues are Delhi Model (AAP) versus Punjab Model (Sidhu), free electricity and water, pensions and so on. AAP now stands for soft Hindutva, BJP for hard Hindutva, and Congress for caste assertion. All this is closely related to the end of Jutt Sikh hegemony and points to the irrelevance of Akalis in state politics," he adds.

Real issues

Noted writer and Dalit activist Des Raj Kali has been travelling in Punjab to gauge people’s pulse. “When you listen to ordinary people, you feel depressed on how even hope is missing. These elections are no longer about core socio-economic issues–education, unemployment, the effect of pandemic, health, even agriculture. It is as if the elections are being fought in the skies, not on ground," he says.

Jaskirat Singh, an environmentalist who has worked for many years to clean the polluted Buddha Dariya (a seasonal rivulet that passes through Ludhiana) and opposes the Mattewara Industrial Park on the banks of Satluj, says, “No political party is raising environment as an issue. No one is focussed on how the region’s water table is depleting. Our rivers are poisoned with sewage and industrial effluent. Our forests are a measly 3.67% and decreasing. But we do not focus on how we can get clean water and air. These are the real issues. Unless we can live and breathe, what is the use of all these welfare schemes or identity politics?"

Though AAP claims to be a party with a difference, it has given at least 38 seats to leaders who quit other parties and joined them. Congress, too, is being accused of nepotism in its seat allotment.

A popular joke goes: “It is so cold. If you take a muffler, people consider that you are with Kejriwal; if you take a loi – large shawl—you are with Channi; if you take an old shawl, you are with Sidhu; if you wear a long coat, you are with Badal".

“A cursory look at the candidates’ list of all political parties shows only about 10% women candidates have got tickets. AAP has announced that if it wins, it will pay every woman 1,000 for the next five years. Congress has bettered it by offering 2,000. In a deeply feudal and patriarchal society, the parties are conveying that women are only entitled to doles not equality," activist Toor says.

Until now, owing to the third wave of the pandemic, the Election Commission had banned rallies in the state. When rallies start, perhaps after 11 February, the fog will replace the rains. With no clear vision, all parties will continue to appear as apparitions of each other. The core issue is trust deficit in political parties.

As of now, only one aspect is clear: Punjab is in a state of flux and unlike 2017, it won’t be a sweep for one party. In a contest between Congress and AAP, there could be a hung assembly where other parties might play the king-maker.

(Amandeep Sandhu is the author of PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines.)

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