Punjab

Identity politics, again

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Activists of the All India 84 Victims Relief Committee burn an effigy of former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh during a demonstration in Amritsar on April 20. They were protesting against the clean chit given by the Congress leader Amarinder Singh to Jagdish Tytler, one of the accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

A SYNDROME that can be easily categorised as “last-minute panic” seems to have set in within the party units of the Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the parliamentary elections draw near.

As the 13 Lok Sabha constituencies of Punjab go to the polls on April 30, the Congress and the SAD-BJP combine have started raising familiar issues like Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. As these issues have an emotional appeal among a majority of Sikh voters, the SAD manifesto promises fast-track special courts to try all the pending cases relating to the anti-Sikh riots. The Congress has targeted SAD chief Parkash Singh Badal’s “complicity” in Operation Blue Star. Congress leader Amarinder Singh, who had resigned from his party in 1984 in the aftermath of the operation, has accused Badal of meeting the then Home Minister and giving his nod to carry it out.

Amidst the accusations and counter-accusations that followed, political observers seemed to be unanimous in their view that the pulls and pressures of Sikh Panthic politics in the State are too large to be ignored. Perhaps, this is the last canon for all the political parties when they find themselves in crises. The SAD-BJP combine, which was banking solely on the slogan “Modi for PM” seems to lack confidence in its strategy at present.

When Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s candidate from Amritsar, proudly declared a month ago that the parliamentary elections are not about regional issues but are, in fact, a referendum on the party’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi and his model of development in Gujarat, it marked a strategic shift in the history of electoral campaigns in the State. For the first time in Punjab, where elections have often been fought on regional political issues, this round seemed to be centred on national issues.

The SAD-BJP combine put up posters and hoardings showcasing Modi and the State government’s success in building big thermal power plants or national highways. Jaitley and other leaders talked about “coal gate” or the “irregularities” in the allocation of 2G spectrum in an effort to capitalise on a perceptible widespread anti-incumbency sentiment against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. Traditional campaign methods addressing the farmers’ issues or Sikh identity were not in evidence. “Development and clean governance” was the sole electoral pitch advanced by the alliance.

In response, the Congress campaign relied on the State-level anti-incumbency mood against the SAD-BJP government. It hoped to capitalise on what many perceive as an “autocratic regime” of the Akalis. The Congress accused the SAD of betraying Sikh sentiments by allying with Modi, who is responsible for the forcible eviction of a large number of Sikh farmers in the Kutch region of Gujarat.

As a result of this, the SAD-BJP combine advocating the “Gujarat model” had to go on the back foot. Moreover, it was evident that in many parts of Punjab Modi’s reputation as a strong Hindutva leader does not find takers among Sikhs, who despite being a majority in the State perceive themselves as a minority group in the country.

Adding to the woes of the SAD-BJP combine, regional considerations seem to have a greater impact on their voting preferences. “The anti-incumbency sentiment against the Akali-led State government is very high. Government employees have not been paid their salaries for the last three or four months. Issues such as illicit drug trafficking and the use of crude force by the Punjab police seem to have affected many people. In such a political climate, the ‘development campaign’ advanced by the SAD-BJP sounds vacuous. Thus, a Modi wave, unlike what the ruling dispensation would like the electorate to believe, is absent,” said Jagroop Singh Shekhon, an Amritsar-based political commentator and a member of Lokniti, an election-survey organisation.

It is in this context that the last two weeks of campaigning have seen a clear reversal of political strategies. The SAD-BJP alliance is now compelled to address regional and local concerns.

The anti-incumbency mood against the State government has helped the Congress. Even a few months ago, most of the State Congress leaders were reluctant to put up a brave electoral fight as they were still recovering from the defeat in the 2012 Assembly elections. “Infighting and factionalism seemed to have crippled the party until the Congress high command forced all the faction leaders to contest elections and prove themselves,” said Pramod Kumar, a Chandigarh-based political commentator.

Amarinder Singh was asked to contest against Arun Jaitley in Amritsar. A reluctant Pratap Singh Bajwa, Amarinder’s bitter rival and State Congress president, was asked to take on Vinod Khanna from the Gurudaspur constituency. Mohinder Singh Kaypee, the leader of another faction, has been given the party ticket from Hoshiarpur. According to sources in the party, the Congress high command specifically asked all the major leaders of the State unit to contest instead of lobbying for their representatives as candidates. “Neutralising the factional politics within the party seems to have rejuvenated the party cadre. The old guard is fighting this election as if it is its last election,” said a party insider.

This is reflected in the Congress’ aggressive campaign against the Akalis in every constituency. It has also allied with former Akali leader Manpreet Singh Badal, who defected from the SAD three years ago and formed the People’s Party of Punjab.

In this battle between the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance, the rising popularity of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may change political equations. “Our surveys have shown that the AAP has become hugely popular among the youth or what we call voters in the 18-35 age bracket across all constituencies. Corruption is a huge political issue and both the Congress and the Akalis are alleged to have played a role in illegal sand and stone mining and drug trafficking,” said Shekhon.

The AAP has put forward popular and clean candidates and has been conducting door-to-door campaigns. It has mobilised people not only on the issues of corruption but also agrarian distress in the last two decades. Many political observers believe that the AAP has forced both the mainstream parties to take refuge in traditional Sikh identity politics. According to them, this retreat to emotional politics could polarise voters and help them reap electoral benefits on caste lines.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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