Amid the rapid political developments, Punjab is expected to witness a multi-cornered contest for 13 Lok Sabha seats. The state will go to polls on May 19 in the last phase of general elections. Congress, which is currently ruling the state, appears to be at ease with factions emerging in both the opposition parties, Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party leading to formation of new political parties like Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali), Punjab Ekta Party and Nawan Punjab Party (Patiala). Contrary to the Modi wave across India, Punjab saw a different trend with Aam Aadmi Party and Akali Dal winning four seats each followed by Congress claiming three seats and BJP two seats in 2014.
Who are the new players?
The bordering state of Punjab saw a few new political parties joining the fray after dissidents in both the opposition parties decided to float new outfits. Aam Aadmi Party, which had stunned the political observers by winning four seats in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has only weakened since its underwhelming performance in 2017 Assembly elections. The defeat fuelled the alienation of its leaders who have been raising questions over high handedness and supremacy of Arvind Kejriwal in deciding the affairs of the party in the state.
First signs of fracture emerged when Patiala MP Dharamvir Gandhi and his colleague Harinder Singh Khalsa MP from Fatehgarh Sahib were shown the door for anti-party activities in 2016. Sukhpal Khaira, former leader of opposition in the Punjab Assembly, miffed with the public apology of Kejriwal to controversial Akali Dal leader Bikramjit Singh Majithia in a drug defamation case, tendered his resignation from the primary membership of the party in January this year. AAP, which emerged as a viable third alternate with presence in all three regions of the state namely Malwa, Majha and Doaba, felt another blow when H S Phoolka, the prominent figure seeking justice for 1984 Sikh riots victims, said that he will quit active politics to concentrate on activism.
The exodus of leaders from AAP was visible in the dwindling electoral performance in the Lok Sabha bypolls along with panchayat and civic body polls. The loss could be gauged from the fact that its candidates not only suffered humiliating defeats in bypolls of Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat and Shahkot assembly constituency, but also lost their deposits. Deserted by many founding members, AAP is now relying on Delhi model of governance to campaign.
Political commentators suggest that Kejriwal and his team should have understood the sentiments of common Punjabis. Ashutosh Kumar, Professor of Political Science at Punjab University argues that the politics of Punjab is entirely different from its neighbouring states. Unlike other states, common Punjabis hate darbari culture in Delhi, and want an independent status.
After months of testing political waters, Gandhi floated Nawan Punjab Party last year, promising to safeguard the interests of the state. The new splinter group is expected to cause a significant dent in both the mainstream parties, Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal. Khaira also made a similar move, and floated Punjabi Ekta Party. The newly formed party, along with Nawan Punjab Party and other regional parties, are part of Punjab Democratic Alliance, also touted as the fourth front.
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Shiromani Akali Dal, rooted in Akali movement liberating many Sikh shrines from the clutches of the corrupt Sikh priests and British officers, too witnessed a division when Khadoor Sahib MP Ranjit Singh Brahmanpura along with former MP Rattan Singh Ajnala and former minister Sewa Singh Sekhwan floated a new organisation called themselves Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali). The trio was reportedly upset over the conduct of Sukhbir Singh Badal in BJP-SAD government (2007-2017).
The BJP-SAD combine saw the ire of the Sikh community over flip-flops over pardoning of jailed Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and seeking dera votes in previous assembly elections. The anger further mounted when two Sikh persons lost their lives after police opened fire on protesters agitating against the sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib in Faridkot in 2015. The new group with its claimed secular and democratic outlook seeks to free Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) from the clutches of Badal family. SGPC controls and manages the affairs of all prominent Gurudwaras of Punjab.
However, experts maintain that it is the BJP which may be wiped out of the state. Kumar said, "Unlike 2014, there is no Modi wave. Secondly, Hindus living in urban centres want communal peace and stability as they were the worst affected victims in militancy which gripped the state for over a decade. We have already noticed a decline of 12% votes in its share in previous assembly elections. On the other hand, Akali Dal has been deserted by the old leaders and people believe that it has abandoned panthic values. Similarly, the stigma of Akali Dal leaders promoting drug rackets will take time to fade."
He added, "In these conditions, Congress has an edge over its opponents. It has a statewide organisation, resources and a credible face like Captain Amarinder Singh which may translate into significant seats for the party.”
Apart from the religious issues, unemployment and agrarian crisis coupled with burden of loans will be dominating the political spectrum of the state. Talking to Newsclick, Raghunath Singh, CPI(M) candidate from Anandpur Sahib maintains that the youth is seeking job opportunities, but has to console themselves with poorly paid jobs amidst increasing contractulisation. He said, “Punjab Roadways has a new wing called PUNBUS. In this wing, 80% employees are contract-based workers. Similarly, teachers, para medical staff and scheme workers too rely on meagre salaries for their livelihood. We have reiterated that all the employees should get equal pay with equal status."
The state, which is under a debt of Rs 2 lakh crore, is too struggling with farmers laden with burden of loans often resulting in suicides. Reports suggest that the commercial banks have employed dubious methods to lure farmers to take loans. "There are around 26 lakh (2.6 million) farmers in the state, but banks have issued more than 40 lakh (4 million) Kisan Credit Cards," Livemint quoted Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the state farmers’ commission as saying.
They further allege that the farm loan waiver scheme introduced by Amarinder government is not enough in relieving them from the burden of loans. Only the loans worth Rs 2 lakh were waived, whereas the average farmer has taken a loan of Rs 10-12 lakhs. Apart from agriculture, education and medical emergencies too contribute to ever increasing burden.
So, the question still looms large, will it be an election of personalities or people of Punjab will stick to issues? Only results will tell.
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