Punjab Assembly election: Old issues, new hope

The Assembly election is not going to hover around identity politics. It will be dominated by the real issues affecting people’s lives.

Published : Feb 08, 2022 06:00 IST

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal addresses party leaders and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee members during a protest in Amritsar on January 2, after a man was beaten to death for allegedly trying to commit an act of sacrilege at the Golden Temple.

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal addresses party leaders and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee members during a protest in Amritsar on January 2, after a man was beaten to death for allegedly trying to commit an act of sacrilege at the Golden Temple.

Punjab is at the crossroads, waiting restlessly for the outcome of the 2022 Assembly election. The State’s electorate in general and the rural masses in particular appear to be ready to teach a lesson to the leaders of the traditional parties who in their view are responsible for the problems facing the State. The 13-month-long farmers’ struggle has had a role in creating this heightened sense of political awareness. It not only made the common people politically aware but also empowered them to raise their issues and concerns before the candidates in their constituencies. People have routinely opposed the entry of leaders of some of the parties into their villages. In villages in the Malwa belt, it is not unusual to find small groups of enlightened citizens discussing the nature and structure of politics and the role of various political parties and their candidates in the elections. It is also for the first time in the electoral history of the State since 1952 that the contesting candidates have been seen avoiding voters.

In post-independent India, Punjab was among the States that had a record number of coalition governments. This was the case in East Punjab (renamed Punjab in 1950) and the Patiala East Punjab States Union (PEPSU), an Indian state formed out of eight princely states. In 1956, PEPSU merged into East Punjab. The first Punjab government in independent India was born out of an alliance between the Congress and the Akalis under the chief ministership of Dr Gopi Chand Bhargava. The Akali Dal quit the alliance after the Constituent Assembly refused to provide safeguards to Sikhs, and the State was brought under President’s Rule in 1951. The second coalition government, of the United People’s Front, was led by Justice Gurnam Singh of the Akali Dal (March 8, 1967, to November 24, 1967). It included the Akali Dal, the Communist Party of India, the Jan Sangh and independents. The third coalition government, formed by the Akalis and the Jan Sangh, was headed by Justice Gurnam Singh from February 17, 1969, to March 27, 1970, and by Parkash Singh Badal from March 27, 1970, to June 14, 1971. Badal led the next coalition government, formed by the Akalis and the Janata Party, from June 20, 1977, to February 17, 1980. Badal led the next coalition government of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from 1997-2002 and again for two terms from 2007 to 2017. The SAD-BJP government of 1997 was the first to complete a full term.

The State witnessed three major changes, firstly in the form of Partition in 1947, secondly, the merger of princely states in 1956 and, finally, the linguistic reorganisation in 1966. These events not only changed the geographical, topographical, demographical and linguistic basis of the State but also brought changes from the perspective of politics, religion, caste, and economy. This further shaped and reshaped the social and political foundations of the electoral behaviour of Punjab. With three geographical and cultural regions, namely, Majha, Malwa and Doaba, the State is divided into five divisions: Faridkot, Ferozepur, Jalandhar, Patiala and Ropar. These divisions are further divided into 23 districts and 81 subdivisions. Currently, there are 117 seats in the Punjab Legislative Assembly and 13 parliamentary constituencies and seven Rajya Sabha constituencies.

Dominance of Malwa

The delimitation process before the 2012 Assembly election changed the number of constituencies in the regions. The dominant Malwa region benefited further when two seats each from Majha and Doaba were added to it. Malwa has 69 constituencies, Majha 25 and Doaba 23. This development increased the electoral importance of Malwa for the two dominant political parties, the Congress and, particularly, the SAD. The increase in the number of reserved seats in the State from 29 to 34 increased the importance of Dalit votes. It must be mentioned here that all the Chief Ministers of the State, except one, have been elected from the Malwa region since the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966. There has been a complete dominance of this region in State politics.

The electoral politics of post-Independence Punjab can be explained in two phases—pre- and post-reorganisation of the State. In the previous two decades (1947-1967), politics was dominated by the Congress with other parties, including the Akali factions, having little say. The reorganisation of Punjab on linguistic basis turned it into a Sikh-majority State, making the Akali Dal politically relevant and helping it establish its dominance in State politics. Until 2012, the State was ruled alternately by the Congress and the SAD. In 2012 the SAD-led coalition broke that cycle when it retained power for a consecutive second term.

Also read: Riveting race

In 2017, the Congress swept the election, winning 77 of the 117 seats. The SAD-BJP alliance managed only 18 seats and came third. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) became the main opposition party, winning 20 seats. Despite the landslide victory, the Congress vote share came down by around 1 per cent because of the emergence of new parties such as the AAP and the Lok Insaf Party . The AAP polled 24 per cent of the total votes, which was substantive for a party making its electoral debut in Punjab. On the other hand, the SAD’s alliance partner, the BJP, won only three seats with a meagre vote share of 5 per cent. There was an overall decrease in the vote share of the traditional parties, and the new parties managed to shift the vote share in their favour. This was an alarming situation for the traditional parties, which use religion, caste and other parochial factors to garner votes.

The 2017 election resulted in a political change on expected lines, but the incumbency factor was not the only reason for it. The entry of the AAP affected the way in which elections were fought in Punjab. Though the party was not successful in whipping up a wave in its favour, it managed to create a swing in the votes of both the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance.

The agenda of the 2022 Assembly election is not going to hover around identity politics, religion and other parochial issues. Although traditional political parties are trying to engage people on these issues, the present situation shows that it will be dominated by people’s issues such as agrarian crisis, unemployment, development, drugs, smuggling, corruption, mafia and involuntary migration of youth. These issues figure in the discussions among the voters and have become part of their political imagination. The election debates happening at the grass-roots level discuss much more than the traditional agendas. Even the pan-Hindu identity issue raised by the BJP and Amrinder Singh at different levels may not fetch them the votes of the urban Hindu population.

With the entry of the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), a political front of various farmer organisations, the State is witnessing a five-cornered contest for the first time. Although the morcha may not be able to achieve any concrete success owing to a number of reasons, including its inability to get itself registered as a party, the absence of an organisational structure, a lack of resources and political experience, and the Samyukta Kisan Morcha’s disapproval, it has disturbed the support base calculations of the traditional parties and the AAP. It has provided a platform for rural people to become political activists and a voice for the unheard and unconsidered issues on which the two traditional parties had a mutual understanding. As such, the electoral process of the 2022 election has shown that the traditional set-up of agendas and working patterns will not work in the State. Every political party and future government in the State will have to discuss developmental goals.

Yet, the problem in the State is that mainstream political parties are busy in competitive populism rather than attending to core issues. The unfortunate thing is that no political party seems to have any blueprint to pull the State and its people out of the crisis-ridden situation.

Also read: No front runners

Punjabis have been known through centuries to attempt new experiments and fight against the injustices of ruling establishments. This resulted in the birth of a large number of socio-political movements (radical and reactionary) in the State before and after Independence. The Punjab farmers’ protests against the three Central farm laws, which began in September 2020 and spread to several States, is testimony to this fight. The anger of the people against the political parties that were party to the enactment of the laws is visible in this election. Initially, people did not allow any political activity or entry to political leaders in their villages. Now they are asking them direct questions relating to the present hopeless situation in the State. As a result, for the first-time political leaders and candidates are hesitant to visit their constituencies.

The Congress is bruised and faction ridden. The removal of Amarinder Singh led to a vertical division in the party and mass defections of Congress leaders to the BJP and other parties. The Congress government led by Charanjit Singh Channi has lost its sheen, and people do not have any hope that he will be able to mitigate their problems. The intra-party fights have only added to the Congress’ woes.

The situation is not much different in the Akali Dal. The people of the State are not ready to forgive the misdeeds committed by its leaders during its two consecutive terms in office in the State. The SAD and the Congress are nervous about the challenge from a resurgent AAP. The AAP is using every opportunity to usurp the panthic agenda by taking up various issues relating to the Sikh community such as demanding punishment to the killers of Sikh youths in 2015 in connection with the Bargari sacrilege case. It has also promised farmers and other sections of society that it will make the State free of mafias, drug smuggling and corruption and provide a transparent administration, quality education and sound health services.

The Congress, on the other hand, is trying to regain the ground it lost owing mainly to the bad performance of the Amarinder Singh government for four and a half years and the controversies relating to his successor Charanjit Singh Channi’s family.

The ruling party is trying to convince the people of the development work undertaken by its government in the past five years. It has promised new opportunities and alternative politics, but right now its efforts have received a lukewarm response. The general perception among people about the Congress’ rule is this: “The only thing that has changed after March 2017 is that Congressmen have replaced Akalis in the loot of the land and mines and targeting of political opponents.” The possibility of the AAP taking a central position will depend on it not committing the blunders that it did in the 2017 election. The party has publicly accused the Congress and its leaders of protecting powerful members of the Akali Dal who were allegedly involved in drug-related activities and other anti-people activities during their rule from 2007 to 2017. AAP leaders alleged that both the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance failed to curb the drug menace when they were in power in the State.

Also read: ‘Anti-Congress vote will be divided’

The other important determinant in the election will be the non-resident Indians (NRIs) of Punjab. In the last election, they liberally supported the AAP both financially and electorally by prevailing on their relatives to vote and support AAP candidates. This time, however, they are in a dilemma of whether to continue supporting the AAP or give the SSM a chance. But the affection the NRIs have for the AAP is still intact as they hold the traditional parties responsible for the present situation in the State.

It can be said that the issues in this election will be the same as those in 2017 with a special focus on the agrarian crisis. Any party that promises to resolve these issues will find favour with the electorate. At present, the AAP appears to be the preferred choice of voters.

The Left’s Role—Past and present

The Communist Party of India emerged as the second largest party in Parliament and a powerful force in the States, including Punjab. In Punjab, its splinter group, the Lal Communist party (LCP), led a successful struggle against ‘bisvedari’ in the PEPSU . In 1959, the CPI’s Punjab Kisan Sabha led a major civil disobedience movement against the Betterment Levy imposed by the Congress government . But the India-China border war in 1962 created a split in the Indian communist movement. As a result, two parties came into existence, the CPI and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Ironically, in Punjab, the leftist group (ex-LCP) remained with the CPI and the others joined the CPI(M).

With the passage of time, ideological differences between the CPI and the CPI(M) became inconsequential. The CPI(M) also chose the parliamentary path like the CPI. The undivided CPI got four, six and nine seats in the State Assembly in 1952, 1957 and 1962 respectively. The 1967 elections were contested by the divided party. The CPI won five seats, while the CPI(M) secured three. The CPI participated in the first non-Congress United Front government in the State and Comrade Sat Pal Dang became Food and Civil Supplies Minister while the CPI(M) supported the government from the outside. Its leader Harkishan Singh Surjit became the Convener of the government’s Common Minimum Programme. It was the first and last portfolio enjoyed by any communist leader in the State.

The CPI had an alliance with the Congress in the 1972 election and won 10 seats while the CPI(M) managed to win only one seat. The CPI supported the Congress during the proclamation of internal Emergency (1975-1977) and allied with it in the 1977 Assembly election. The electoral performance of the Left was at its peak in the 1977 and the 1980 Assembly elections. The CPI won seven seats and the CPI (M) eight in 1977, while in the 1980 election the CPI won nine and CPI(M) five seats. In 1985, only one CPI candidate got elected. Since then, the Left parties have remained persistent underachievers in elections. In the last three Punjab elections (2007, 2012 and 2017), there has been no representative of the Left in the State Assembly.

Also read: For a new Left

The Left remained a strong force in the political process in the State in pre- and post-Independence India. It played an important role in the rise of social and political movements in the State in post-Independence period. The golden period of the Left movement in the State was the 1960s and 1970s. The rise of the naxalite movement in the late 1960s and the emergence of powerful students organisations in 1970 witnessed a massive support for the communist parties. Its farmers’ wing, the All India Kisan Sabha, was the only voice of the small and marginal farmers. It advocated land reforms and distribution of land to the landless. This attracted a huge number of landless Dalits to the Left parties. There was almost complete control of the left-wing student unions in all educational institutions, particularly in higher education institutions in the State. The Left also consolidated its position among industrial workers and organised them to get better treatment from their employers. The Left was dominant in the organised sector employees’ unions in the State. The Left won two Lok Sabha seats in 1972 and one in 1977. It can be said that the Left was a political force in the 1970s.

Although there are many reasons for the decline of the Communist movement in the State, heavy damage was inflicted on it for the stand it adopted on the terrorist violence in Punjab between 1978 and 1993. The communist movement suffered the most because of its opposition to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala and his divisive and violent ideology. The Left became the number two enemy of Bhindranwala after the Nirankaris as it was the first to oppose his brand of violence. As per Left sources more than 700 leaders, including ex-MLAs and prominent personalities and Left cadre, were killed during this period.

Weakening of grass-roots support

The suspension of political activities in the State and a complete ban on elections in educational institutions since 1983 gradually weakened the grass-roots support of the Left parties. On the other hand, the vertical and horizontal divisions at regular intervals among the Left in the State since 1964, the rise of splinter groups during the naxalite movement and later on, the CPI allying with the Congress during the Emergency and the gradual decline of leadership, and a “leadership vacuum” led to the weakening of the Left as a whole. The Left parties not only failed to consolidate their strength but a large number of its cadre moved to other parties.

The failure of the Left to resolve caste, class and religion issues failed to educate the masses at the grass roots level about building an ideal society on democratic and socialist principles. Probably they did not have a blueprint for the future in their minds. The failure to forge an alliance of workers (Dalits and industrial) and small peasants in the real sense of the term also alienated the Left from the masses. Had they worked successfully in this direction the Left would have been much more politically relevant in today’s crisis-ridden Punjab and produced lasting liberating effects in society. Dalits constitute one-third of the State’s total population and more than 80 per cent of the peasants are small and marginal.

There has been a revival of the Left in the State, not in electoral terms but through the farmers’ agitation. The biggest Kisan Union, the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), has a left-leaning leadership, and is considered to be more Left than the Left. In addition to this, of the 32 farmer unions, the largest and biggest number (in terms of following) is led by different Left groups.

Jagrup Singh Sekhon is a former Professor ofPolitical Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab.

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