Bucking the trend

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

Marking a change in the electoral dynamics of Punjab, the SAD-BJP alliance comes back to power.

in Chandigarh

THE Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-Bharatiya Janata Party government has defied history by becoming the first incumbent government to be voted back to power in Punjab ever since the formation of the State in 1966. The alliance secured 68 seats in the 117-member Assembly against the 46 seats of the Congress, which banked on the historically proven trend of rotation of power in the State.

Many political analysts attribute the SAD-BJP alliance's victory to Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal's organisational skills and election management. Sukhbir, who is also president of the SAD, is credited with keeping on the back burner Sikh Panthic issues, on which the party has built its cadre, and charting a new growth model for the State. The 48-year-old has been addressing the real concerns of the people ever since he joined politics nearly a decade and a half ago.

In the 1992 election, which was fought against the backdrop of nearly 15 years of insurgency, the voter turnout was a mere 28 per cent, while in 2012 it rose to almost 78 per cent. The trend reflects clearly the aspirations of Punjabis, who want much more than security and peace, which was the central agenda of elections in the 1990s. Sukhbir sensed this feeling of the voters during his campaigns, while the Congress dwelt on its old-time rivalry with the Akalis. An anti-incumbency sentiment against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre only helped the SAD-BJP combine's cause.

The verdict in Punjab also overturned the trend in the 2009 parliamentary elections, when the Congress (eight seats) edged out the Akalis (six seats). Moreover, the Congress led a significant number of the Assembly segments in the parliamentary constituencies then. This, perhaps, egged on the Akali leadership to start their campaign earlier this time than the Congress did and initiate substantial governance reforms to make up for the losses. Such astute management led to veteran Prakash Singh Badal taking the oath as Chief Minister for the fifth time, on March 14. At 84, he is the oldest Chief Minister in India.

The SAD added eight seats to its tally of 48 in the 2007 Assembly elections out of the 94 seats it contested. Its partner, the BJP, however, won only 12 (seven fewer from 2007) out of the 23 it contested.

The Akalis also made significant advance in all the three regions of the State Majha, Malwa and Doaba. However, the SAD-BJP lost 3.5 percentage points in its vote share from 2007, while the Congress just about retained its vote share

The SAD-BJP combine's vote share this time, however, is still more than that of the Congress. Such marginal difference in vote shares is a common characteristic of all the elections in Punjab. By getting his party victories in the 2007 and 2012 Assembly elections, and the 2008 panchayat elections and by avoiding a debacle in the 2009 parliamentary elections when the mood was clearly against the Akalis, Sukhbir Badal has proved his election management skills.

Third front

The reduction in the vote share of the SAD-BJP can be attributed to a third front that emerged in the State elections for the first time. But the Sanjha Morcha, led by the People's Party of Punjab (PPP), which was projected as a strong contender before the elections, got only a little more than 5 per cent of the votes. Manpreet Badal, the leader of the front and a renegade Akali, could not retain his Gidderbaha seat near Bhatinda. He finished third there and also in Maur, another constituency from where he contested. His political opponent, Sukhbir Badal, meanwhile, won by more than 50,000 votes, the highest in the State. However, what dents the Akali victory to an extent is the defeat of seven Ministers in the outgoing government. This is said to be because of an anti-incumbency sentiment against those individuals.

The support of deras (sects) is said to have been crucial in the past elections. For instance, the large number of seats the Congress secured in the Malwa region in 2007 was credited to the open support it got from the Dera Sacha Sauda, which had been at the receiving end of the SAD's aggression. This time round, the many deras of Punjab were reported to have supported individual candidates rather than a particular party. However, the importance accorded to the dera factor may seem an overestimation, inasmuch as a sitting MLA and close relative of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda, lost despite having known to enjoy the unstinted support of dera followers in every election.

While the SAD attributed its victory to its governance over the last five years, Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister hopeful of the Congress, was quick to concede defeat and own full responsibility for it.

However, as the days passed, Congress leaders started blaming opposing power blocks within the party for the defeat. Some of them blamed the PPP for playing the spoiler, while others blamed the 26-odd rebel candidates. They said that in at least 20 seats, the Congress lost by only fewer than 2,000 votes. An example they cited was that of Prakash Singh Badal's son-in-law Adesh Pratap Singh Kairon, who won by just 59 votes, suggesting that the mandate was not as greatly in favour of the Akalis as it was made out to be. Many others voiced worries about the large-scale infusion of money and liquor and the use of brute force by the Akalis during the campaign.

However, Pramod Kumar, director of the Chandigarh-based Institute of Development and Communication, dismissed these opinions. The result is a positive verdict. The Congress banked too much on the anti-incumbency factor and on negative campaigning. It could not give any new hope to the voters. As far as close contests go, even in 2007 there were at least 22 seats with victory margins of fewer than 2,000 votes, he told Frontline.

He said though there was a polarisation of the anti-incumbency votes, the PPP (which got around 5 per cent of the votes) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (4 per cent) harmed not only the Congress but also the Akalis. The Congress lost 22 seats because of the PPP and the BSP, and the SAD lost 19 seats because of these two parties, he said.

The Akalis' strategy

The SAD-BJP combine's performance needs to be seen in this context. Firstly, the SAD, which is seen as an upper-caste Jat-Sikh party, gave the ticket to as many as 11 Hindus for the first time in its history. Of them, 10 candidates won. Until 1996, only a Sikh could become an SAD member.

The party, also for the first time, devoted ample space to the concerns of the business community in its manifesto and campaigns. The business community is dominated by Hindu Banias, who are politically the most influential group among Punjabi Hindus. This served as a boost to the SAD, which had banked on its ally BJP for garnering Hindu votes.

Secondly, the SAD tried to shed its image of a strictly rural party by highlighting an extensive urban agenda this time. Urban issues such as drinking water supply, electricity, roads and highways, bridges, business centres, modern hospitals, higher education institutes, subsidisation of cable television, free laptops and the like formed a chunk of its manifesto.

The promises were disseminated to the grass roots by the disciplined organisational machinery of the SAD. Following the delimitation exercise, traditional constituencies got new names and new urban areas under them, and, hence, a substantial number of urban votes. The SAD attracted these votes, which traditionally went to the Congress when the BJP did not contest.

Thirdly, the SAD-BJP's neatly packaged programmes, such as the subsidised Atta-Dal scheme, free cycle to the girl child, the Right to Service Act, and free health and electricity benefits, introduced over the last two years worked very well with the marginalised communities and poor farmers.

In a dominantly agrarian State like Punjab, where the depeasantisation rate, farmers' suicides and agrarian crisis have touched extremely high levels, these schemes came as a much-needed relief for the poor. Together with this, the government, by conducting a survey based on income levels and means of livelihood, raised the number of the poor to approximately 17 lakh from the three lakh estimated according to national poverty line standards. This helped more people to benefit from the welfare schemes.

Sukhbir Badal, as Deputy Chief Minister, also implemented radical administrative reforms, drafted by a group of academics and bureaucrats. As a result, out of the 34 reserved constituencies, the SAD-BJP combine won in 24 despite having no credible Dalit face. Meanwhile, Dalit stalwarts in the Congress such as Chaudhary Santokh Singh and Chaudhary Jagjit Singh lost the election and so did the wife of the Congress' Dalit Member of Parliament Mohinder Singh Kaypee. At 29 per cent, the proportion of Dalits in Punjab's population is the highest for any State in the country, and Sukhbir Badal's schemes and programmes for the poor proved to be a masterstroke.

Family politics

The flipside is that the SAD is still seen as an autocratic party. In election surveys by Lokniti, a research group, there were complaints of police repression and suppression of dissent.

Said Ashutosh Kumar, political science professor at Panjab University in Chandigarh and a member of Lokniti: We were told in our surveys that sarpanchs [village heads] were used as vote contractors in villages. Akali governments in the local bodies gave the party an additional edge. These elections also saw an unprecedented rise in kunbaparasti [family politics], with all the leading parties distributing the ticket among relatives of prominent leaders. How does one explain the degeneration of the Akali Dal, an ideologically rooted and cadre-based party, into a family party'? To what extent should the leadership of Badal senior, given his control over the Akali Dal as also his unmistakable influence' over the SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee] and Akal Takht in post-militancy Punjab, be held responsible for this? It is a moot question, one that cannot be dodged by one of the senior-most politicians of the country, widely admired as a mass leader and a reconciler', at the fag end of his eventful career.

According to Pramod Kumar, the Congress failed because of its inability to regionalise its organisation, agenda and leadership. It is interesting to note that regional parties are making concerted efforts to nationalise' their politics. The issues raised by the SAD in its manifesto relate to Centre-State relations; but the Congress manifesto is silent on these issues, he said.

Jagroop Singh Shekhon of Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar noted that in the absence of an active opposition at present, it may not be long before Punjab sees the Congress going for strategic tie-ups for elections.

These trends are saplings for the ushering in of a coalition politics era in the State. It would be a healthy trend as dominant emotional issues of revenge and identities, which have long been political issues in Punjab, would make way for real developmental issues in the future, he said.

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