A BJP wipe-out

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Punjab's verdict illustrates how little mass support Far Right enterprises now wield in the State.

HAD there been an award for inventive excuses, Punjab Food and Civil Supplies Minister Madan Mohan Mittal would have won it hands down. After news broke on February 24 of the defeat of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance, Mittal lashed out at journalists. "The media were responsible for demoralising our supporters," he said in a suitably hurt tone. "Many people voted for the Congress(I) only because of the exit polls, which predicted that we would be wiped out." Incredulous laughter greeted the assertion, since all of Punjab's voters had exercised their franchise on February 13 before any exit poll results became available.

Wiser politicians chose silence. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal barricaded himself inside his house, and refused to talk to party cadre and the press alike. Badal's reaction was perhaps understandable. In 1997 he had led the SAD to its record high of 75 seats in the Assembly. This time the SAD won 41. The BJP fared even worse, winning just three seats and failing to retain even one of the 18 constituencies it had taken in 1997. For most people in the SAD-BJP, however, the defeat was no real surprise. The afternoon before counting began, Punjab Finance Minister Kanwaljit Singh took time out for a relaxed farewell lunch with his staff. He, unlike BJP colleagues including Mittal and Balram Dass Tandon, managed to retain his seat. Across town, at the Congress(I) headquarters, the staff members busied themselves with giving the building a fresh coat of paint. Others got down to placing orders for sweets and fireworks for celebrations planned the next evening.

In the event, the scale of the SAD-BJP defeat was somewhat smaller than most people had expected. Two out of three major exit polls grossly over-estimated the number of seats the Congress(I) would win. The television channel Aaj Tak's exit poll gave the party 91 seats while Zee-CMS estimated 83. Even the most pessimistic exit poll, commissioned by Doordarshan, predicted that the Congress(I) would win 71 seats. Pre-election opinion polls proved just as inaccurate. India Today gave the Congress(I) 90 seats, while Outlook magazine predicted that the Congress(I) would win some 73 seats. The Congress(I) had been told by a south India-based opinion poll company that the party would win a two-thirds majority. Another SAD-commissioned poll said that the party would win under 35 seats, which led at least some candidates to campaign less energetically than they might otherwise have done.

Politicians of the SAD and BJP are not the only ones to be disappointed with their performance. If the Congress(I) had hoped for considerably more seats than the 62 it eventually won, its ally, the Communist Party of India, was bitterly disappointed that it won just a single seat. Although the Congress(I) had hoped to break into key SAD strongholds in the rural southern Punjab, Akali candidates held their own. The most dramatic defeats, however, were those of the SAD rebel faction, the Far Right Panthic Morcha. Despite months of energetic campaigning, much of it on flagrantly communal lines, the Morcha failed to win a single seat. The BSP too failed to mark a presence in the Punjab Assembly, despite the personal campaign investment made by its supremo, Kanshi Ram. Nine of the 116 seats that were contested - one election having been postponed owing to the death of the SAD candidate - went to independents.

Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Captain Amarinder Singh after the party's victory in the Assembly elections.-AFP

What is truly significant about this round of elections, however, is that it has emphatically reversed a seemingly inexorable saffron tide. To understand the full magnitude of the Congress(I) victory, it has to be placed in the context of events since 1996. That year's Lok Sabha elections were the first that the State had faced after its decade of carnage, since the SAD had boycotted the 1992 Assembly elections in deference to terrorist fiat. The SAD picked up just 28.7 per cent of the popular vote to the Congress(I)'s 35.1 per cent, but won eight out of 13 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress(I) could manage just two. This success was in part the result of the SAD's alliance with the BSP, which won 9.3 per cent of the vote and three Lok Sabha seats. More important, however, was the BJP factor. Although it had just 6.4 per cent of the vote, these ate into the Congress(I)'s share, and tipped the balance in favour of the SAD in key urban areas such as Jalandhar, Ropar, Patiala and Ludhiana.

Politicians of both the Hindu and Sikh Right were quick to learn the lesson. In the 1997 Assembly elections, the SAD allied itself with the BJP. This time, the BJP's Hindu support base helped it raise its share of the popular vote to 37.5 per cent, while that of the Congress(I) fell to 26.4 per cent. The SAD reached its record total of 75 seats, two higher than its previous peak in the 1985 Assembly elections. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's need to secure an Akali imprimatur for his pact with religious leader Harchand Singh Longowal had more or less conceded that contest. This time around, there was a no-holds-barred contest. The Congress (I) was left with just 14 seats, lower than the 17 it won in the face of the pro-Opposition wave of 1977, or the 32 it picked up against its will in 1985. The BJP, which had won just one seat in 1985 and six during the violence-torn election of 1992, managed to take 18 seats. This was truly a fairly-tale victory.

Unlike fairy-tales, however, this saga of SAD-BJP success did not have a happy ending. The romance ended after the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, in which the SAD-BJP alliance performed well. By 1999, urban Hindus were wholly disenchanted with the BJP, as many rural Sikhs were with the SAD. The reasons were simple. Corruption, poor administration and the absence of a developmental agenda had stripped the government of the massive popular support it had received just two years earlier. Hindu voters were furious with the BJP for failing to contain the religious Right within the SAD, while some of those elements, led by Badal's key foe Gurcharan Singh Tohra, had split to form the revanchist Sarv Hind SAD. In the Lok Sabha elections that year, the SAD won just two of nine seats it contested, and the BJP one of three. While the BJP roughly held its vote share of 9.7 per cent, the SAD's share fell to 28.5 per cent, much the same as in 1996. The Congress(I)'s share of the popular vote, however, grew dramatically, to 38.4 per cent.

Although comprehensive data were not immediately available, the pattern of victories suggests that broadly the 1999 Lok Sabha election results have been repeated. With 38.1 per cent of the popular vote, the Congress(I) has held on to the constituency it won in 1999. The SAD has improved its vote share substantially to 36.6 per cent. While the Congress(I)'s successes, as in 1999, came mainly from urban and semi-urban constituencies, the SAD has succeeded in expanding its base in Malwa, and mainly rural areas like Tarn Taran. Observers attribute this to the fact that the paddy procurement price was fixed at a record Rs.610 a quintal during the last harvest, the disastrous long-term consequences of the step notwithstanding. Schemes such as that for free power supply to landed farmers also appear to have helped the SAD hold on to its key Jat Sikh constituency.

Prakash Singh Badal, going to submit his resignation on February 24 in Chandigarh.-AFP

The real loser in this election has been the BJP, which has seen its vote share drop by almost five percentage points to 4.8 per cent, a figure which underlines the scale of the defection of its urban Hindu base.

Events from here on should be fascinating to watch. The SAD has already made its intentions clear, announcing even before the counting of votes began that it intended to build a memorial to those killed fighting Indian forces during Operation Bluestar. This marked turn to the Right by the SAD presumably serves two purposes. First, a communal mobilisation is intended to bring back alienated Sikh voters to its fold. Second, Badal hopes to fend off attacks from the Panthic Morcha, which accuses him of failing to protect Sikh communal interests. Although Tohra has led the Morcha to an unceremonious defeat, he could gain support from the many SAD MLAs who do not wish Badal to be able to ensure the succession of his son, MP Sukhbir Badal. Issues like alleged mass crimes committed by the Punjab Police in its war against terrorism could again come centrestage.

All of this will be of a piece with what has, without dispute, been the most acrimonious election Punjab has seen. The Congress(I) laid corruption centrestage, putting out posters charging Badal with having sold out Punjab's case on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal in return for bribes from Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala. Other Congress(I) posters showed SAD politicians selling government jobs in return for cash. The SAD responded with personal attacks on Pradesh Congress Committee(I) chief Amarinder Singh. Amarinder Singh was accused in SAD advertisements of everything from defaulting on bank loans advanced for a failed business to being lazy. The Congress(I)'s role in Operation Bluestar and the genocidal 1984 pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi were also raised. Voters, however, do not seem to have been influenced by polemic on these issues. If the Congress(I)'s record in Punjab has not been forgotten, voters seem to have forgiven it in the hope that that it will deliver a development-oriented and corruption-free administration.

Will the man many people still call maharaja be able to deliver on these promises? His accession as Chief Minister is certain, but Amarinder Singh faces powerful enemies in his own party. Faridkot MP Jagmeet Singh Brar, who has sniped at the PCC(I) chief throughout the period of the elections, failed to attend even a lunch meeting on February 22, where inner-party disputes were to be resolved. Jagmeet Brar, however, has been weakened by the fact that his nominees lost all the Assembly segments in his Faridkot Lok Sabha constituency. Another potential rival, former Chief Minister Harcharan Singh Brar, failed to win an Assembly seat. Only Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who replaced Jagmeet Brar as Chief Minister, remains a potent threat. Should the three dissidents group together, Amarinder Singh could well be faced with a full-scale revolt at the first sign of trouble - including any violence that results from a communal mobilisation by the SAD.

Amarinder Singh's own story, however, illustrates just how much Punjab has changed over the past decade, and how little mass support Far Right enterprises now have. In 1984, Amarinder Singh left the Congress(I), embittered by Operation Bluestar and its legacy. He joined the United Akali Dal led by revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's father, but by 1986 was affiliated with the more centrist Badal faction of the SAD. Unlike other SAD centrists, however, Amarinder Singh stood up against the Khalistan onslaught, and set up his own Akali Dal (Panthic). He unsuccessfully contested the 1992 Assembly elections, boycotted by all the other Akali groups. Although he attempted to rejoin the revived SAD of 1995, he was marginalised by the Far Right. Given no role in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the Akali Dal (Panthic) broke away from the SAD in the Assembly elections that followed, but it did not make much success.

"Punjab's people do not wish to live in the past," the prospective Chief Minister says. "What happened a hundred years ago is no longer relevant." His test will be realising a future. If he fails, the political centre of gravity could lurch to the Right again, with potentially horrific consequences.

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