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Poll-Bound Punjab in Muddied Waters as Parties vie to Reach the Shore

Tripta Narang |
All the major political parties are trying to gain from the changed situation in the state with alliances expected before and after the elections.
Charanjit Singh Channi

Punjab has triggered a special interest both socially and politically compared to the other four states scheduled for the 2022 Assembly elections considering the central role it played in the year-long farmer movement.

All the major political parties are trying to gain from the changed situation in the state with alliances expected before and after the polls. How pre-election alliances will impact the voting pattern in the state? How has the repeal of the three farm laws affected the politics of Punjab? 

“Lot of tamasha is going on—defection, infighting, etc,” Chaman Lal, former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Newsclick, but “it is the same old actors. The main contest will be between the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress unless there are major defections or horse-trading”. 

According to Lal, in the Doaba region, especially in Jalandhar and Hoshiyarpur, voters will “not be influenced by the farmer movement” as such, but they might go towards the BSP, which is in alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). “Everybody expects a hung verdict. The question is who will form the government?” 

The Congress has been plagued with internal problems that started with the resignation of chief minister (CM) Captain Amarinder Singh. Though some experts feel that having Charanjit Singh Channi, from the Mazhabhi Sikh community, as CM is a smart move. No leader from a backward caste was appointed CM after Giani Zail Singh, who belonged to Ramgariya community.

The Congress is confident of Channi bagging the votes of Dalit, who comprise 32% of the state population. Channi has announced various schemes since coming into power, which might work in the party’s favour. 

Political expert professor Balwinder Tiwana, from Patiala University, feels that the announcements worth Rs 2,500 crore made for the welfare of the people in the last two months have put Congress on a solid wicket. “He is trying to woo both the Sikhs and the Hindus of Punjab. So far, the Congress and the CM have a positive image among voters,” he told Newsclick. Replacing Channi if the Congress wins will be difficult considering the improvement in the party’s image since he took over, he added.

Lal doesn’t rule out AAP’s chances due to the anti-incumbency factor. “Protest rallies and demonstrations against the state government are being held by doctors, nurses, Anganwadi workers and teachers daily, indicating the anti-incumbency factor. AAP’s chances can’t be ruled out,” he said.

However, Tiwana pointed out “weaknesses in the organisational and structural framework” of AAP, which had bagged 20 seats in the 2017 Assembly polls. Unless AAP announces the CM candidate, what the party intends to do is still unclear. The silence on the chief ministerial candidate will influence voting patterns in a major way.

Unfortunately, nearly 50% of AAP MLAs have joined the Congress. People in the state have started to question the party’s stand on various issues despite its promises of ensuring the safety and dignity of women and revamping the education system. 

Lal still feels that AAP has an “edge over others” in the entire state. “AAP also has the support of farmers, who have never said anything against it. I think voters have a soft corner for AAP.”

It would be interesting to see how the SAD fares after breaking away from its long-time partner the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, with a strong religious standing, has a certain percentage of loyal voters who won’t change allegiance despite its renewed partnership with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). 

Once a strong ally of the SAD, the BSP does not have a presence in Punjab. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if the renewed partnership will strengthen the position of the SAD, which has announced more than half of its candidates and also its CM nominee.

The BJP could go solo this time by trying to bag the urban Hindu Punjabi votes and polarise the Hindus and the Sikhs by playing the nationalist card. Due to playing second fiddle to its erstwhile partner in the state for the last 23 years, the BJP has not invested in nurturing senior leadership in Punjab. 

Senior Ludhiana-based journalist Pramod Batish told Newsclick that BJP members are “unhappy and feel headless due to the absence of a senior leader”. The party lacks the kind of dedicated and committed voters it has in cities and towns in rural areas. 

It is being speculated that an alliance with Amarinder and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa of the SAD (Sanyukt) could help the BJP make inroads into rural areas. According to Batish, the BJP might end up gaining by default and will try and get small parties together. 

Lal, on the other hand, said that the “attitude of the people towards the BJP hasn’t changed and they are not going to forgive it”. In the likely event of a BJP-Amarinder alliance, he feels that “voters, especially in the Malwa region, were fed up with the feudal rule of the Captain and they definitely won’t be swayed by him again. He night himself lose. Besides, Dhindsa does not enjoy big support in rural areas.”.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) has a huge influence in Malwa but its members do not believe in voting. Tiwana said that “things have changed a bit” after the repeal of the farm laws. An interesting development is the formation of the Punjab Bachao Samyukta Morcha (PBSM).  On  November 28, the PBSM organised a rally in Ludhiana attended by 40-50,000 people, including various trade unions and organisations that were part of the farmer movement and four of left parties. Though the organisation reiterated its non-political character, its members said that they will discuss politics and, if needed, will contest the elections. 

Whether the Punjab elections witness a contest between two parties or more is unclear. As Tiwana said, “Ajaey they Bbhanumati da kumbhatyaar ho rahahai (The picture is changing everyday and people are confused).”

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