Bigger harvest?

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Congress leaders during a roadshow in support of Gurjeet Singh Aujla, the candidate in Amritsar constituency, on April 23. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh during a discussion in the Assembly on February 14. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the SAD candidate from Bathinda constituency, campaigning on April 26. Also seen is her husband and SAD President Sukhbir Singh Badal (right). Photo: PTI

The Congress, which is on a firm footing in the State, is all set to increase its tally, while its chief rivals are busy tackling internal crises.

The Congress is poised to steal a march over the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) combine and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in a three-horse race for 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab. Despite its countrywide losing spree in 2014, the party netted the highest vote share of 33 per cent in the State, compared with the SAD’s 26 per cent and the AAP’s 24 per cent.

Although the Amarinder Singh government is yet to fulfil most of the promises the Congress made during the 2017 Assembly elections, including raising the unemployment dole to Rs.2,500 and increasing the “Shagun” grants for the weddings of Dalit girls from Rs.5,100 to Rs.51,000, a badly splintered opposition is making things easier for the party. The mood of the electorate, which was clearly against the SAD-BJP combine in 2017, does not seem to have changed much in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election.

The BJP will likely struggle to retain the two seats it won in 2014; it is contesting in three seats, while the SAD is contesting 10. The AAP will need a mini-miracle to retain its four seats. As for the SAD, retaining its four seats may prove to be an uphill task.

While the AAP lost its Leader of the Opposition, H.S. Phoolka, who left the party to concentrate on getting legal justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh genocide, the SAD has had to deal with rebellion within. A section of Akali leaders left to form the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali), forcing SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal to issue the usual denial of the split affecting the parent party in any way in the elections. The Taksali faction may hurt the party in at least four districts.

In early April, the Delhi High Court adjourned the hearing of a petition seeking a judgment to determine whether the SAD was qualified to contest elections or whether it was just a Sikh religious organisation that looks after the management of gurdwaras. The court adjourned the matter to July 22, providing relief to the SAD in the legal matter.

AAP problems

Meanwhile, the AAP continues to battle dissension, open rebellion and public washing of the party’s dirty linen. According to grass-roots workers, AAP leaders failed to understand the spirit of Punjab and to see issues from the local perspective. The party lacks the infrastructure and the funds of some of the other major parties. It will scarcely surprise anyone if the AAP fails to retain the four seats it won in 2014.

The AAP’s victory in 2014 raised hopes of an alternative to traditional politics, but local residents believe that the party failed to expand on it simply because it failed to grasp the ground realities in the State. The absence of charismatic State leaders was compounded by the remote control the party tended to exercise from Delhi. Not surprisingly, the party was riven by dissent. H.S. Phoolka, a respected leader, quit the party, and others like Baldev Singh and Sukhpal Singh Khaira moved out, accusing AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal of “giving up its [the party’s] basic ideology and principles” and being “dictatorial and arrogant”. Even as their resignations were not accepted by the party high command, Baldev Singh and Khaira joined hands to form the Punjab Ekta Party and decided to contest from Faridkot and Bathinda respectively.

However, the popular AAP leader Gul Panag, who is not in the fray this time, believes that the party will do reasonably well and may even end up as the principal party after the Congress. Sidestepping a question on the party’s election preparedness, she said: “Preparation and what the public sentiment is are two different things. It is certainly anti-incumbency sentiment against the Centre. The advantage in Punjab will go to the AAP and the Congress. I am quite confident that Bhagwant Mann will be able to retain his seat [Sangrur]. Beyond that, if the party is able to retain its seats, it will be a good outcome.”

The noted author and critic Amandeep Sandhu foresees a significant fall in the AAP voting percentage. He said: “People saw through the AAP. The locals are against the Delhi durbar culture. The pathetic part is that despite being around for three years or more, the AAP has not understood anything about Punjab. They keep brokering. The AAP cannot stand with Punjab on the Sutlej water canal issue. On the issue of justice for those who disappeared during the times of militancy, they try to shy away. The party has failed to build the narrative.”

According to reports, the AAP’s insistence that a tie-up with the Congress include both Haryana and Punjab, besides Delhi, led to the collapse of the talks, leaving the fledgling party to fight on its own in Delhi too.

Gul Panag conceded that the Congress was in a “resurgent position” in Punjab. “It is an uphill battle for the AAP to retain its four seats. It is simply because the impact of the AAP in Delhi does not reach Punjab. The media do not cover those issues here. Then there are specific issues like the Sutlej water canal. Having said that, it is an AAP-Congress contest in Punjab. The Akali Dal, in my opinion, is not in the contest.”

SAD’s issues

If the AAP is not exactly in the best state to fight elections, the SAD is not the powerhouse it used to be. The fact that two of the party’s stronger candidates are the husband-wife duo of Sukhbir Badal and Harsimrat Kaur is an indication of how much has changed for the party from its its heyday when the BJP played second fiddle to it even while ruling at the Centre.

Harsimrat Kaur, the sitting MP from Bathinda, is not on a strong wicket in her constituency. In the early days of campaigning, she was shown black flags by the local residents in some villages, and in others, she had to face tough questions about the lack of water, sanitation and medical facilities. Also, the Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in her constituency are known to favour the Congress.

Jagwinder Singh Grewal, a former AAP member-turned social activist, asked her a few questions on Facebook after failing to get a response during her village tours. He said: “The sitting MP had come to our village in October 2015 and laid (the) foundation stone for 324 toilets to be built for Dalit families under the Centre’s scheme. However, till March 2018, no work started in this project. For 15 months after the laying of foundation stone, the SAD-BJP government was in power. After March 2018, only 80 toilets were built. I wanted to ask why she [Harsimrat] wasted the village’s money on the inauguration. Secondly, our village does not have proper staff in the government hospital and school for the past 10 years. I wanted to question her on this as she cannot blame the State government as this is a problem for the past 10 years when the SAD-BJP was in power.”

Harsimrat Kaur is not the only SAD leader to face the ire of voters. Her party colleague Gulzar Singh Ranike, who is contesting from Faridkot, was gheraoed by villagers and questions were asked about the Rs.15 lakh promised by the BJP. At more than one place, Ranike, who is contesting a Lok Sabha election for the first time, was shown black flags in villages and had to return without delivering his speech.

Sukhbir Singh Badal’s candidature in Ferozepur was delayed as the SAD initially mulled over fielding his father, the 93-year-old patriarch, Parkash Singh Badal, and then dropped the idea given his age. He is pitted against Sher Singh Ghubaya of the Congress, the sitting MP who defected from the SAD in early March.

Ghubaya’s acrimonious relationship with Sukhbir goes back a long way. Ghubaya is said to run or manage a number of colleges; Sukhbir, as Deputy Chief Minister, had ordered vigilance raids on these colleges. Ghubaya’s son, Davinder Singh, was denied an Akali Dal ticket in the 2017 Assembly elections. Davinder Singh joined the Congress and won from Fazilka, which is part of the Ferozepur Lok Sabha constituency. Clearly, Ghubaya, a two-time MP from Ferozepur, will provide stiff opposition to the Badal scion.

Amandeep Kanjhla, son of the three-time MLA and former Akali Minister Gobind Singh Kanjhla, has also defected to the Congress as has the senior Akali leader Tejinder Pal Singh Sandhu.

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is taking a special interest in Bathinda and Ferozepur. In an interview with The Hindu, he said: “Sukhbir Badal and Harsimrat Kaur Badal have decided to contest and I am looking forward to the husband-wife team. I am going to spend extra time to teach them a lesson. They must understand that they can’t function the way they have been. They have been using the Akal Takht—the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs—for personal gains to serve political ends.”

The Congress is confident of the support of the Dalits and the OBCs in the area. Its decision to rope in Ghubaya, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste Rai Sikh community, which is strong in numbers, should make things even more difficult for the Badals.

Under the circumstances, the claim of the Badals that the electorate will vote for the SAD-BJP alliance as the “country needs a strong, clear-headed and decisive Prime Minister and there is no match for Narendra Modi” sounds hollow. In Punjab, which was witness to the Pathankot airbase attack in 2016 besides being the victim of targeted killings by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the nationalism narrative does not go very far.

Local complaints

Kartarpur Sahib, rather than Balakot, is the subject of street-corner discussions; in the former, Navjot Sidhu is very much the common man’s hero. That is when the attention shifts from lack of jobs, drug addiction and agrarian distress.

Tara Singh Sandhu, a State Congress leader, said: “The Congress manifesto is our key election plank, but also there are local issues like GST [goods and services tax]. Punjab is an agricultural State but neither wheat nor rice comes under GST. Industries to the tune of Rs.30,000 crore have fallen sick. We need an economic package from the Centre. Also, loans amounting to Rs.31,000 have been put in the term loan category by the Centre. This needs to be changed. The schools need to get better. Some 225 schools closed down during BJP rule. The number of students fell from 15 lakh to five lakh. We are working on plugging these gaps. We want a positive vote for our work.”

Against these steep odds, if Harsimrat wins and her husband loses, it could well bring about internal churning in the party. The wife, and not the husband, would be the new power centre. Amandeep Sandhu said: “If Harsimrat wins, the party could slip into her hands rather than the Badals. One must remember that she comes from the Majithia family, which is the older power-broker in Punjab.”

In these circumstances, Amarinder Singh is poised to add substantially to the Congress’ nationwide tally, and that will doubtless add to his stature. According to some estimates, Punjab could give the Congress its best success ratio, better than Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the party won the Assembly elections less than six months ago, and perhaps on a par with Chhattisgarh, where the party hopes to carry forward the momentum generated by its December 2018 victory.

Although the Congress can afford to be confident, there are some areas of concern for it. The party has failed to fully deliver on its promise of farm loan waivers and not enough attention is being paid to modernisation of agriculture. Rather than concentrating on bringing about improvements in agriculture where landholdings continue to diminish in size, the government is said to have adopted a piecemeal approach in handing out doles. According to agricultural experts and activists, Punjab is staring at an agricultural tragedy.

An expert, who wished to be anonymous, told Frontline: “As a farmer, what I can understand is the scale of the economy. The landholdings have become very small. Because of the small size, there is no investment. No one wants to come into agriculture. There is no new thought, no new enterprise. There is a lot of talk of some farmers owning acres and acres of land. Why is a farmer with 10,000 acres [4,000 hectares] in the U.S. not feudal, and here a man with a 50-acre farm is called feudal. I blame the media which coins terms like large holdings.”

He added: “Farm loans repayment is a mystery. If a farm loan is not invested in agriculture, it cannot be repaid through agriculture. The claims of waiving farm loans are just political things. They are not a solution. You have to improve agriculture, not the farmer. He will take care of himself. The landholdings’ size has to increase. Only then will the farmer use something like a tractor. You buy a tractor. It is capable of being used across 50 acres. But it is being used on 17 acres. It is gross underemployment. But the government will not do anything about it.”

Clearly, it is easier to take credit for writing off farm loans than bring about a fresh Green Revolution. However, even as the Chief Minister claims that “what we have delivered in two years is many times more than what the Akalis, along with BJP, did in 10 years”, the Congress does not appear to need any revolution to deliver on election day.

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