Paying the price

Print edition : March 23, 2007

Captain Amarinder Singh meets the media after the defeat.-

In the Punjab elections, the Akalis, in alliance with the BJP, reap the `benefits' of the Congress government's wrong policies.

IN the nation's imagination, Punjab may be a land of plenty and prosperity, with lush fields watered by five rivers and ploughed by smiling farmers riding tractors. But after two decades of economic liberalisation, which both the major political parties have endorsed during their respective regimes, the people of Punjab appear to have voted for a promise encapsulated in `daal-roti'.

The most visible issue in the Assembly elections in Punjab was atta-daal (flour and pulses). The Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) coalition, which won the elections with a combined tally of 67 seats, has promised to provide the poor with flour at Rs.4 a kilogram. They used inflation, especially the rising prices of basic food items, as a heavy stick to beat the Congress government with; their campaign used newspaper advertisements and pamphlets showing comparative charts of prices of food items now and in 2002 when the SAD-BJP was in power. Although the Amarinder Singh-led government promptly matched the offer - in fact, he bettered it by promising flour at Rs.2 a kg - perhaps, it was too late.

The people were discontented and certainly not in a forgiving mood. They showed up in large numbers - a 76 per cent turnout is unusual for the State - to decide who would control the 117-seat Assembly, and the Congress was decisively shown the door. Once again, Prakash Singh Badal took control of the reins of the State as Chief Minister.

However, although the SAD is still the single-largest party in the State, it is as much a time for soul-searching as for celebration. This victory had little to do with the Badals (son Sukhbir Singh Badal was at the forefront of the campaign) or the party and much to do with the electorate's despair at having to choose between two tried and tested political parties that had failed the people in their own ways.

If any `development' has taken place, it is not immediately evident, and agriculture has long been heading to a deep financial and ecological crisis. The State has witnessed a steady decline on important fronts such as health, employment and education. Government schools have never been as shabby as now and only the poorest of the poor send their children there. Private education is expensive, as is access to health care. Public health institutions suffer from a lack of vision, not to mention resources. Unemployment levels have been described as `explosive', with thousands of young people angling to go abroad for jobs and many of them getting cheated in the process. This was, in fact, a major election issue in the central Doaba belt. Narcotics are another huge issue and little has been done to tackle the drug trade and the underlying factors that may have led to the widespread problem of addiction.

Traders in most urban centres were unhappy about the imposition of VAT (Value Added Tax). Bawant Singh, who runs a small shop in Amritsar selling kites, complained about the tax burden. "It is like placing a tax on children playing," he said, and wanted items such as kites removed from the list of taxable items. Several shopkeepers echoed this sentiment and the erstwhile Opposition capitalised on this without, ironically, making any concrete promises about reversing the tax policy.

Shiromani Akali Dal chief Prakash Singh Badal and his son and general secretary Sukhbir Singh Badal celebrate the party's victory, in Chandigarh.-AKHILESH KUMAR

However, the fact that Punjab is not feeling particularly optimistic about the Akalis either is evident from the fact that the SAD won only 48 seats, which is not much of an improvement over the 44 it had in the outgoing Assembly. But the anti-incumbency factor had been working overtime: it is commonly said that the people of Punjab have a tendency to throw out whoever is in power.

In addition, both parties suffered the ill-effects of heartburning caused by the ticket distribution. Many of those who were denied their party ticket decided to contest independently or refused to campaign for the official candidate, which especially cost the Congress dear. The party had to expel 24 rebel candidates, some of whom had won successive elections.

The only major gains have been made by the BJP, which has been on a sharp upswing: it won only three seats in the 2002 Assembly elections, but wrested 19 seats this time, establishing itself firmly as the third-largest party in the State. The BJP managed to woo back the urban Hindu voters it lost to the Congress five years ago.

The biggest loser, of course, was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). It not only suffered because of the new parties formed by the various splinter groups - all of them banking on Dalits who comprise about 28 per cent of the population - but also lost its place as the third-largest vote-gatherer. Although it did not win any seats in 2002, the BSP controlled 5.69 per cent of the vote share. But thanks to the rebellion against Mayawati's Uttar Pradesh-centric approach to Dalit politics after party founder Kanshi Ram's death most of the influential Dalit leaders broke away to form smaller parties such as the Bahujan Kranti Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Morcha (BSM) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (Ambedkar). Some of these factions joined hands with some of the Left parties to set up a third front, which split the Dalit vote further and possibly ate into the Congress vote.

The BSM chose not to contest at all, deciding instead to back Captain Amarinder Singh. The party's leader Satnam Singh Kainth said he did that only to show Prakash Singh Badal, who did not seek their support, that he needed the Scheduled Castes' vote to come to power.

The poll results may have upset his calculations, but the Congress and the SAD do need to rethink their strategy with respect to Dalits and their political aspirations. It is telling that even the Punjab Pradesh Congress president, Shamsher Singh Dullo, a Dalit himself, lost in Khanna, a reserved constituency. Perhaps it is time to consider poll alliances that consolidate the vote bank rather than fracture it. Communist Party of India leader A.B. Bardhan blamed the Captain for the breaking up of the alliance between their parties, and the Congress made no attempt to form ties with any of the many leftist groups.

There is no denying that the last government got some things right; it made significant gains in the southern Malwa belt, which used to be an Akali stronghold. One of the positives is that farmers find the procurement procedure at the mandi much simpler, with the role of the middleman being minimised. Successive procurement seasons have been free of the large-scale annual fraud and scandals that broke out during SAD-BJP rule from 1997 to 2002. However, voters seem to have reiterated that ending corruption in one area is not enough. There have been serious allegations of corruption pertaining to the `contract culture' as well as against Amarinder Singh himself.

Amarinder Singh has probably learnt many lessons through this election. One of them, hopefully, is that he need not flash the communal card. The Captain failed in his attempts to woo the Sikh vote through his involvement in the celebration of religious events such as the 500th anniversary of the second Sikh guru Angad Dev and promise that there would be no lack of funds, and the 400th anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib, besides participating in the `palki' (palanquin) procession from Delhi to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan and starting a bus service from Amritsar to Nankana Sahib. The religious card did not do any more for him than it did for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections. In fact, it may have done more harm than good by alienating Hindu voters.

The defiant cancelling of the river water-sharing accord (with Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan) did not pay off either, although water is increasingly scarce and is a constant source of friction. The groundwater table is falling to dangerously low levels, and if this situation continues it is likely to spell disaster in the coming months. However, none of the major parties has focussed on this or related environmental issues.

Whether Prakash Singh Badal can keep the crucial promises he has made to the poor remains to be seen. Soon after taking oath as Chief Minister he said he would speak to the Prime Minister about further subsidising atta-daal, but added that the chief responsibility to curb inflation rested with the Union government. The newly victorious government would do well to remember what is said about the people of Punjab and their attitude to those in power.

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