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The battle for Punjab

Punjab Assembly election: Riveting race

Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (centre) with Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi (right) and Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president  Navjot Singh Sidhu, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar  on January 27.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (centre) with Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi (right) and Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Navjot Singh Sidhu, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on January 27.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann, the Punjab Aam Aadmi Party president, speaking to mediapersons ahead of the Punjab Assembly election, in Amritsar on January 30.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann, the Punjab Aam Aadmi Party president, speaking to mediapersons ahead of the Punjab Assembly election, in Amritsar on January 30.

Amarinder Singh, former Chief Minister and president of the Punjab Lok Congress, after filing his nomination, in Patiala on January 31.

Amarinder Singh, former Chief Minister and president of the Punjab Lok Congress, after filing his nomination, in Patiala on January 31.

Farmers burning an effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a protest demanding the fulfilment of their pending demands, near Amritsar on January 31.

Farmers burning an effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a protest demanding the fulfilment of their pending demands, near Amritsar on January 31.

It is a three-cornered fight between the ruling Congress, the challenger Aam Aadmi Party, and the Shiromani Akali Dal, but the run-up to the upcoming election has been marked by all-round internal dissension, rampant defections and populist promises; and the BJP has been reduced to a non-entity thanks to the widespread antipathy of farmers.

In less than a couple of months,farmers in Punjab will be reaping the harvest of what they sowed some time ago. In this season of plentiful rain and balmy sunshine, their returns appear certain. After the Central government revoked the three controversial farm laws, their much-cherished mandis are likely to be agog with activity. After spending more than a year protesting outside railway stations, malls, mandis and public squares in Punjab, before moving to the borders of Delhi, the farmers look poised to reap the fruits of their grit, sweat and tears.

But the fate of those seeking to rule over them is not so certain, with major parties in the fray for the upcoming Assembly election grappling with what State Education Minister Pargat Singh called “ public display of internal democracy ”. Whether it is the strife-ridden Indian National Congress or its principal opponents, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), all the significant contenders are facing internal dissent, besides the usual wrangling over ticket distribution.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the Centre and the fourth pole of Punjab’s political and electoral structure, does not face internal dissension on the same scale as the other parties, but it suffers from a colossal lack of popular appeal. So much so that the party and its new-found ally, the Punjab Lok Congress (PLC) led by former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who was thrown out of the Congress barely five months ago, are not a significant contenders in any part of the State. Interestingly, one of the central themes in the run-up to the Assembly election was the widespread antipathy towards the BJP and the Central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As things stood in the first week of February, with barely 10 days left for polling, the degree of success in managing internal fights and the politics outside was increasingly becoming the key factor that would decide the fate of the two main contenders: the Congress and the AAP.

Also read: No front runners

The party that is able to assuage hurt egos, rally around the most disgruntled and ambitious legislators and limit the damage caused by infighting may just be the one smiling on March 10, when the results of the 117 Assembly seats will be declared.

But in a State that has had two Congress Chief Ministers within the same Assembly term and seen the defection of 10 AAP legislators, and where the SAD has two factions, that is a tall order.

Defections galore

Continuing the tradition of political defections, Jagmohan Singh Kang, a noted Congress leader and former Punjab Minister, joined the AAP in the first week of February along with his sons Yadvinder Singh Kang and Amarinder Singh Kang. A little time before that, Sukhbir Singh Badal, president of the SAD, welcomed Sandeep Singh Brar, erstwhile officer on special duty (OSD) to former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, into his party.

Other Congress leaders who switched allegiance to the SAD were Tara Singh Bhatti, Congress secretary and four-time municipal councillor, and Balwinder Singh, president of the Punjab Congress Committee’s Scheduled Caste Cell.

The ruling Congress had its share of arrivals too, apart from departures. Balwant Rai Nath, Mayor of Bathinda, and Suresh Chauhan, a sitting councillor, left the SAD to join the Congress. Earlier, Malvika Sood, social activist and sister of the actor Sonu Sood, joined the Congress and was promptly rewarded with the party ticket to contest from Moga.

Harjot Kamal Singh, the sitting Moga MLA, immediately left the grand old party and joined the BJP in the presence of Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.

The game of political musical chairs went on merrily.

AAP rides on high hopes

The AAP is hoping to be in the saddle this time although the Congress seems to have its nose in front. In 2017, the AAP was projected to win 70-odd seats by most opinion and exit polls then. However, a late surge by the Congress spoiled its chances, leaving the AAP with a mere 20 legislators in that election.

Realising the odds it is facing this time, the AAP did all the early running, getting a contingent of senior leaders from Delhi, including Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and Raghav Chadha, MLA, to address party workers and voters in rallies that evoked a strange mix of hope and disenchantment.

While Manish Sisodia focussed on pricking holes in the Congress’ claims of running better schools than the Delhi government, Raghav Chadha targeted both the ruling party and its predecessor, the SAD. Arvind Kejriwal also talked about the alleged success of his party’s ‘Delhi model’ of governance.

The party hopes to replicate the ‘Delhi model’ with what it calls the ‘10-point Punjab model’. Speaking in Mohali, Arvind Kejriwal promised voters that if his party came to power in Punjab, it would ensure justice in all cases of sacrilege (in gurdwaras), wipe out the drug syndicate and provide round-the-clock free electricity supply across the State. Predictably, he also promised Rs.1,000 per month to every woman in Punjab over the age of 18. He added: “We will set up 16,000 mohalla clinics and provide free treatment to every Punjabi.”

Also read: Bonding for battle

The AAP believes that its strength lies in the success of its campaign based on the ‘Delhi model’. However, its strength may also prove to be its Achilles heel. The party is still regarded by many observers to be Delhi-centric, even after five years in the State (the party was considered a dark horse in the 2017 Assembly election).

The more its leaders talk of the ‘Delhi model’ and claim that “if it can work in Delhi, it can work in Punjab too”, as the party’s chief ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann does, the more itgives the impression of the AAP being a centralist organisation that will control the State by a remote from Delhi. This may not go down well with the electorate in Punjab.

Fear of remote control

Speaking to the media in early February, Bhagwant Mann said: “We have proved it in Delhi. Sheila Dikshit [former Delhi Chief Minister] left empty coffers. Schools were in a shambles. But the AAP turned it around. More than two lakh public school students shifted to government schools in Delhi. We can do it in Punjab too.”

The announcement of Bhagwant Mann as the AAP chief ministerial candidate was clinching evidence that the party suffers from a lack of notable leaders. Bhagwant Mann is a popular artist with impeccable comic timing, and the party’s sole two-term member of Parliament from Punjab, but he is known to have a drinking problem. During the general election in 2019, Arvind Kejriwal even had to announce that Mann had “given up drinking for the love of Punjab”.

There is a whisper campaign on the ground that Bhagwant Mann’s election campaign was being run from Delhi and that he was not allowed to meet the media without approval from the higher-ups in Delhi for fear of projecting a blemished picture. A local resident, who had dabbled in politics as a foot soldier of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the 1980s, told Frontline : “Mann is a popular singer-comic, but his problems with liquor are well known. The fact that the party had to nominate him as its chief ministerial candidate shows that the shelf is empty. There are no local leaders with charisma. Kejriwal has appropriated all the power.” He added: “Harpal Singh Cheema has been the leader of the opposition, but he is not popular among the rank and file of the organisation.”

Anand Kumar, an early AAP leader who left the party shortly afterwards, said: “The AAP talks of good governance, tackling unemployment, not discriminating between Dalit Sikhs and Hindus. But it is still regarded as a centralist party. This does not bode well for the party as Punjabis have a strong local identity. There is an apparent division between Punjabis and non-Punjabis [among the public in the State].”

But Mann is unflustered by such criticism. He said: “We have a clear road map for Punjab. In first six months itself, we will use specialists, experts in all fields. We have to make a new Punjab. We have to get rid of corruption, give jobs, end mafia rule. I mingle with labourers, peasantry, shopkeepers. I have enough wealth. I do not aspire for more money. I realise the coffin has no pocket.”

Freebies for all

At the moment, Punjab’s coffers are also empty. The State is reeling under a debt of Rs.5 lakh crore. But that has not dissuaded political parties from promising the moon to their prospective voters. Once again, the AAP led the way, with Arvind Kejriwal talking of free electricity besides monthly doles for women. However, the Congress and the SAD have not been too far behind in competitive populism. The sole exception has been the Punjab Lok Congress, but it has no realistic chance of forming the government even as it enters the contest as the BJP’s junior partner.

Taking note of Arvind Kejriwal’s governance in Delhi, and his proclivity to go for the lowest common denominator, the SAD decided to up the ante. Soon after the elections were announced, party president Sukhbir Singh Badal came up with a 13-point charter of initiatives his party would undertake if voted to power. The party promised free power up to 400 units a month for all households and 75 per cent quota for the youths of the State in private sector jobs.

The SAD is contesting the elections in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has some clout among Dalit voters, although that influence has been steadily waning over the past few Assembly elections.

Also read: Right-wing elements communalise creation of new Punjab district

Sukhbir Singh Badal said: “This signals the end of anarchy, chaos, confusion and misgovernance in Punjab. The present rulers have reduced governance to a circus joke. People will heave a sigh of relief that it is over, and the State will go back to the serious business of governance by the SAD-BSP alliance.”

The SAD-BSP alliance’s promises include a quota for women in jobs, reservation for government school students in professional colleges, cheap electricity to industries and a minimu support price (MSP) for fruits and vegetables. It has promised a grant of Rs.2,000 a month to women heads of families holding blue cards (who are below-poverty-line beneficiaries) and a Rs.10 per litre reduction in the price of diesel for agriculture consumers.

The SAD has also promised power at Rs.5 a unit for industries and interest-free loans of Rs.10 lakh each for students, besides an annual health insurance cover of Rs.10 lakh.

Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Navjot Singh Sidhu joined the fray with his share of freebie announcements. He promised eight free cooking gas cylinders to homemakers every year, two-wheelers to girls who join college, Rs.20,000 to students passing class 12, Rs.15,000 to those passing class 10, and Rs.5,000 to students passing class 5.

As Sidhu sought to outdo Arvind Kejriwal and Sukhbir Singh Badal in promising freebies for all, Amarinder Singh said: “How will they raise that kind of money? They are fooling the electorate.”

Sidhu on a sticky wicket

Incidentally, Sidhu himself is on a sticky wicket in his constituency of Amritsar East. He is facing the SAD’s Bikram Singh Majithia, a formidable challenger, and is also facing tough questions about the lack of development in his constituency. His rivals have pointed out that his plans to build flyovers above railway tracks at Vallah Sabzi Mandi and Four-S Chowk have been reduced to a cruel joke by the man often seen on comedy shows in television.

Majithia is wanted in a case under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, but the Supreme Court gave him immunity from arrest in early February. Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, heading a three-judge bench, said that Majithia will have to surrender before a trial court on February 23 and seek regular bail. Indirectly, it gave a breather to Majithia to contest the election on February 20. With Majithia and Sidhu not short of jibes against each other, there is no shortage of entertainment in the Amritsar East election campaign.

If Sidhu needs any solace, it comes from the fact that his own Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, is not exactly having a cakewalk in his constituency of Chamkaur Sahib. In fact, Arvind Kejriwal declared in end-January itself that the Chief Minister would face a tough challenge this time. In a bid to cover his bases, Channi also filed his nomination from the Bhadaur reserved constituency. It might prove to be a smart move as it sends a message to the Dalit electorate that the Congress means business, and that the party is not about to loosen its hold on the Dalit Hindu and Dalit Sikh vote, in that order.

Interestingly, after filing his nomination from Chamkaur Sahib, Channi went to offer prayers at the Dashmesh Garh gurdwara in Bhairon Majra, and then went to seek blessings at the Rudra Siva Temple in Pathran Wali after filing from Bhadaur. The choice of the place of worship was probably governed by the faith of a large section of the electorate.

Channi’s moves

Ever since he took over as Chief Minister in September last year, Channi has made all the right moves, carving out an identity for himself. In a little under four months, Channi has done all the hard yards, talking endlessly of his humble origins and refusing to be drawn into a slugfest with the irrepressible Sidhu. He has literally taken the battle into Arvind Kejriwal’s domain by putting up hoardings and billboards of his achievements in Punjab on the roads of Delhi, and even inside Delhi Metro. It may not translate into votes for his party, but it sends a signal to the AAP, his main rival, that Channi is playing to win.

Anand Kumar said: “He is not a pawn of Sidhu as was initially believed. The way he handled the Ferozepur incident where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to return without addressing the people improved his stature. He has quickly moved to limit the damage arising from the non-fulfilment of promises relating to the issues of sacrilege and drugs.”

Shortly after the Ferozepur incident, Channi said on Twitter: “Since ages, Delhi has been hostile towards Punjab but brave Punjabis have always given a befitting reply.” Channi’s attempt to project himself as the man at the helm, even as he pays lip service to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s initial idea of taking the workers’ feedback before deciding on the chief ministerial candidate, has not gone down well with senior Congress leaders.

Even as the party sought the views of its leaders and workers on the Shakti App, his own party campaign chief, Sunil Jakhar, told party workers in Abohar, where his nephew Sandeep is in the fray, that he, and not Channi, was the most popular leader among them as a poll showed last year. Jakhar claimed that he got 42 votes while Channi brought up the rear with only 2 votes. He said: “I was the first choice of the MLAs. As many as 42 MLAs had voted for me, 16 for the now Deputy CM Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, 12 for MP Preneet Kaur, 6 for Navjot Singh Sidhu and only 2 for CM Charanjit Singh Channi.”

Jakhar refused to go with Channi’s campaign strategy of showcasing 111 days of his government while ignoring more than four and a half years of Congress rule earlier under Amarinder Singh. He told Frontline :: “We have witnessed remarkable progress on all fronts in the last five years. I do not subscribe to this 111-day achievement strategy. We have nothing to be embarrassed about.”

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

While that may or may not impact the final outcome, one thing is certain: the PLC-BJP-SAD (Dhindsa) alliance is a non-starter. In fact, Amarinder Singh’s exit seems to have benefited the Congress. Anand Kumar said: “Amarinder Singh, widely regarded as a non-performing asset, is no more with the party. That would help the Congress.”

The BJP’s decision to contest 65 seats as the senior partner of the alliance could also help the Congress. Political observers said that the party has a realistic chance of winning only in Phagwara, Moga and Batala. In the last two seats, the party is being represented by Congress defectors Harjot Kamal and Fateh Singh Bajwa respectively. In Phagwara, former Union Minister Vijay Sampla is trying his luck. The party has an outside chance in a handful of other urban seats where the farmers’ agitation did not take place on a large scale. Many observers said that BJP will eat into the votes of its erstwhile partner, the SAD, and help the Congress in case of a close contest.

Everywhere else, the party is a non-starter, with its mix of Hindutva, exclusionary nationalism, and one-nation-one language policy failing to appeal even to Hindu voters, who, at 38 per cent of the population, are in a position to affect the electoral fortunes in more than 90 seats. Incidentally, Dalits form 32 per cent of the population and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) account for an almost equal percentage. While there was no Dalit Chief Minister until Channi, all but one of the Chief Ministers until 2021 came from the Jat Sikh community.

Talking about the BJP’s dismal presence in Punjab, Ajay Gudavarthy, political scientist and author of India After Modi , said: “If the BJP had talked of development, maybe they could have made some inroads. They are trying the same Hindutva template. Punjab has not had the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar kind of polarisation ever in its history. Even during 1984, there was no Hindu-Sikh polarisation. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] is trying to build a non-issue. I wonder why they are even contesting 65 seats. They don’t stand a chance. Forget winning, the candidates cannot even campaign in many places. Ninety per cent of them will lose their deposits.”

He added: “Given the farmers’ anger, I believe the BJP leaders would know the ground reality, but they are trying to tap new ground on their own; just as they broke their alliance with the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] in Tamil Nadu [for the local body elections] and are trying to expand there. I sense something insidious. They want to develop this narrative that wherever Hindus are in a minority, they are treated like this, and do not win anything.”

On the dominance of Jat Sikhs, Gudavarthy said that Punjab has had Jat Sikh Chief Ministers because they have been economically dominant and the Dalits in Punjab have been very poor. He said: “Punjab did not have a Mandal movement, probably because Left politics was dominant. Wherever the Left was or is dominant, you do not have independent Dalit mobilisation.”

Incidentally, in Punjab, the decline of the Left has given an opportunity to the BSP, which is looking to revive in this election. Amir Ali, an academic from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said: “In Punjab, Punjabiyat is important. The BJP’s Khalistani accusations against the farmers sitting on protest have not helped either. Amarinder Singh’s alliance with the BJP is a manifestation of opportunism.”

Both Sunil Jakhar and Amarinder Singh have accused the farmers’ body of politicising the protest. Late last year, 22 farmer groups formed an organisation called Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, with Balbir Singh Rajewal as president, to contest the elections.

As Punjab gets ready for the February 20 election, one can safely say that despite the rare five-cornered contest this time, the main fight is still between the Congress, the AAP and the SAD, with both the farmers’ outfit and the BJP-led alliance having no realistic shot at power. While Channi claimed his party would get a two-thirds majority, Sukhbir Singh Badal said that the Congress would be limited to 15 seats and that the real fight is between the AAP and the SAD.

Meanwhile, all the three major contenders are doing a good job of shooting themselves in the foot. If the SAD is fighting to ward off the public perception of its association with the farm laws and drug and sacrilege cases, but simultaneously supporting Majithia in the narcotics case, the AAP is struggling to find second-rung local leaders, and Bhagwant Mann has had only limited takers.

Of course, the ruling party, with dissenters emerging every day, is doing its bit to bring alive the Lucknow tradition of pehle aap (first you) politics. The cake is ready for the taking. It remains to be seen whether the Congress will get its act together in the nick of time.