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Punjab Elections: Making Sense of the Politics of Malwa, Majha and Doaba

The answers to many questions linked with the Punjab polls can be found if one decodes the different emerging political scenarios in Punjab's three culturally and politically distinct regions- Malwa, Majha and Doaba.
Punjab elections 2022

Will Congress be able to come back to power, or will infighting prevent the party from capturing power again? Will the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) improve its 2017 performance and form a maiden government in Punjab? How will the BJP, which was at the receiving end during the anti-farm bill agitation, fare? Will the Akalis capture lost ground in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)? Will Captain Amrinder Singh's Punjab Lok Congress make an impressive electoral debut? Why has Congress fielded CM Charanjit Singh Channi from two seats?

The answers to these and many other questions linked with the Punjab polls can be found if one decodes the different emerging political scenarios in Punjab's three culturally and politically distinct regions- Malwa, Majha and Doaba. These three regions, carved out by Satluj, Beas, and Ravi rivers, have distinct social, cultural, and political identities.

Malwa (69/117 seats)

Situated to the south of the Satluj river and extending up to Ambala in Haryana is the Malwa Region. 14 out of 23 districts of Punjab are located in the Malwa belt. Ludhiana, Bathinda, Patiala and Moga are some of the key districts of the region. Win Malwa, to win Punjab- is an oft-repeated adage in Punjab politics. The region accounts for the lion's share of legislative Assembly seats- 69 out of 117. The extent to which Malwa has dominated Punjab's politics can be gauged from the fact that all but two Chief Ministers of the state since 1966 have been from the Malwa region. Current CM Channi, former CMs Amrinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal also belong to the Malwa region.

In the 2017 elections, Congress bagged 40 of the 69 seats of Malwa. The AAP, which won 20 seats across the state, won 18 of those seats in Malwa. The Akalis had to face an electoral rout in their traditional bastion as they were relegated to the third position with a measly tally of 8 seats. The region has played a vital role in AAP's rise in the state. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, all four constituencies won by AAP were from Malwa. The official announcement of Bhagwant Mann as the AAP's CM face and the anti-incumbency among traditional parties Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress gives AAP an edge in the region. Even in the 2017 polls, there were talks about a strong undercurrent or wave for AAP in the region. But the wave fizzled out, and Congress won the region convincingly. It remains to be seen if the AAP will capitalise on the anger and resentment against its rivals in the region. A good showing in the region may help the AAP form its maiden government in Punjab.

The Malwa belt, mostly agrarian in nature, is also known as Punjab's Zamindari belt. It is infamous for the glaring inequalities in landholding and the high rate of farmer suicides. According to a 2007 study by professors of Punjabi University, Patiala, sponsored by the Punjab State Farmers Commission, Malwa had 27.5% farmers with more than 10 acres of land. The numbers for Doaba and Majha were much lower at 23% and 17%, respectively. A 2019 study on farm suicides between 2000 and 2013 found that 97% of suicides were in the Malwa region. Of around 97% of suicides in the region — 94% were due to farm debt. Most of them were small and marginal farmers having 1-5 acres of land. The study further reported that 43.84% of those farmers who died by suicide were marginal farmers with up to 1 hectare of land, 30.12% were small farmers with up to 2 hectares, and 18% were semi-medium farmers having land up to 2.5 hectares.


The Malwa belt, which has had a history of protests and social-political movements, was more recently the epicentre of the protests against the three farm laws passed by the Union government. Traditionally, farmers and their unions have dictated the terms in the region's politics, and this time, the trend is likely to continue with the farmers' protests being an important poll issue. An X-factor in the region could be the newly floated Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM). Led by Balbir Singh Rajewal, the SSM draws its strength from the member base of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), which is the largest farmer's union in the state. However, the BKU has stated that it will not extend support to any political party, including the SSM. The SSM splitting the anti-incumbency vote could hurt AAP and indirectly help Congress. The multi-cornered contest in the region could mean that a few hundred or thousand votes could be the difference between victory or defeat.

Majha (25/117 seats)

Situated between rivers Ravi and Beas, along the border with Pakistan Majha consists of 25 assembly seats spread across four districts of Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Tarn Taran and Amritsar. The literal meaning of the word Majha is 'in the middle' or 'at the centre'. This area was in the middle of pre-partition Punjab, and hence it is called Majha. Home to the Kartarpur corridor, Golden Temple and several other ancient Gurudwaras and significant places of worship, the region is known as the seat of Panthic or Sikh religious politics. In stark contrast to Malwa, most of the farmers in this region are small farmers holding less than 5 acres of land.

Traditionally, the region has been a bastion of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). But in the 2017 elections, the party suffered a rout and could only manage to win two seats. Congress won 22 out of the 25 seats in the region with a vote share of 46%. The AAP had failed to break the duck in the region. The terror attacks in the region, the long border with Pakistan, and the smuggling of drugs and weapons from across the border are likely to make national security an important issue. While the national security pitch does not have many takers in other parts of Punjab, it has some traction. Other issues that are likely to dominate Majha's electoral space this poll season are the drug menace and sacrilege incidents.

Captain Amrinder Singh's exit from Congress is likely to hurt the grand old party to some extent in the Majha belt. Singh had contested the 2014 polls from Amritsar and defeated senior BJP leader Arun Jaitely. Now, in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which enjoys small pockets of influence in Hindu dominated regions of the region, Amrinder Singh may harm Congress in Majha. Perhaps, to overcome such damages, Congress appointed two deputy CMs from Majha months before the election.

SAD is going all out to recapture its lost ground in its traditional bastion. Since the past few months, the party has been conducting a door-to-door campaign to spread information about its 13-point manifesto for the elections and counter AAP's and Congress's claims and promises. With the Akalis losing several stalwarts to other parties, the entire Akali politics of Majha now revolves around Bikram Singh Majithia- a three-time MLA from Majithia and the brother-in-law of Sukhbir Singh Badal. Majithia is contesting from two seats, and his battle in Amritsar East with Navjot Singh Siddhu is one of the hotly contested, closely followed battles of this election.

In the last five elections, the party or alliance that won the majority of seats in the Majha region went on to form the government in the state. Thus, even though Majha is a distant second in terms of seats, winning Majha will be vital to winning Punjab.

Doaba (23/117 seats)

The name Doaba is made up of two words, 'Do' meaning two and 'Aab' meaning water or river. Thus, the literal meaning of Doaba is the land or area between Beas and Sutlej rivers. The Doaba region, which comprises the districts of Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur and Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar, has 23 assembly seats. Doaba, Punjab's smallest region, also happens to be the most prosperous region of the state. Lying between the Sutlej and Beas, Doaba benefited during the Green Revolution and is known to have large tracts of fertile land. The region is also called the 'NRI belt' as many people have migrated to other countries for better education and employment opportunities.

If Majha is the seat of Panthic politics, Doaba can be considered the centre of dalit politics in the state. Doaba is dominated by dalit voters and deras. Doaba's Jalandhar is home to Punjab's largest dera of Ravidassias. The sect's important centre, Dera Sachkhand Ballan, is situated here. In recent months, the Dera Sachkhand Ballan has been frequented by politicians of all hues hoping to reach out to the community. Channi, AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, Sidhu, SAD's Harsimrat Kaur Badal have all visited Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar. The influence of the community can be gauged from the fact that all political parties had unanimously requested the Election Commission to shift the polling day from February 14 as it clashed with Ravidas Jayanti.

To get its caste arithmetic right, SAD has tied up with BSP, which enjoys some support among Scheduled Castes (SC) and dalit voters. But the advantage in the region seems to be with Congress ever since it appointed Channi- the state's first Dalit CM. The party which won 15 seats in the 2017 polls is hoping to improve its tally in the region to make up for the losses it will suffer in the other two regions. However, infighting, poor candidate selection and anti-incumbency may hurt the party's prospects in Doaba. The AAP, which managed to win two seats in the last assembly elections, is banking on anger against traditional political forces and an eagerness for change- especially among young voters in the region.

In the NRI belt of Punjab, parties are wooing voters in unique ways. SAD has promised a 'Student Education Card'. The card, the party says, will offer Rs 10 lakh interest-free loan for college studies, IELTS fee and admission in colleges abroad. Channi has announced free IELTS, TOEFL and PTE coaching. Not to be left behind, AAP has said that if voted to power, the expenses of graduation or post-graduation (in foreign universities) of SC students will be paid by the state government.

Channi bets on Bhadaur

A lot of limelight has been hogged by Congress party's decision of fielding Channi from two seats- Chamkaur Sahib, his traditional seat and Bhadaur in Barnala. Bhadaur is by no means a safe seat for Channi or a seat where Congress has performed well. In 2017, the INC occupied the third position, and AAP won the seat. In five decades, there has been only one instance of Congress winning the seat - 2012. But there are some reasons behind this move of fielding Channi from Bhadaur. One- the seat is a part of the key-Malwa region-which has 69 seats. AAP did well in this belt in 2017-18. Out of its 20 victories, 18 were in this region. AAP's chief ministerial face Mann belongs to the region and is believed to enjoy immense popularity here. Here, Fielding Channi can be seen as Congress's way of taking the battle into the opponent's territory. It also means that by fielding the CM from the region,  Congress hopes it will tap into the SC votes in the constituency and influence neighbouring seats. It is worth recalling that in 2017 Amrinder Singh, then Congress party's CM face, had done something similar-he had contested from Lambi against Parkash Singh Badal and thus taken the battle to the opposition's turf.

Whether Channi's risk pays off remains to be seen.

The author is a freelancer based in Bombay and an alumnus of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. His interests vary from politics, psephology, and journalism to regional Indian cinema. He tweets @Omkarismunlimit

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