Cover Story: Punjab

Return of the Congress

Print edition : March 31, 2017

Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh (centre), with party leaders Harish Chaudhary and Asha Kumari, flashing the victory sign after his party's landslide victory in the Assembly elections, in Chandigarh on March 11. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Arvind Kejriwal (second from left) at a road show in Majitha. Photo: PTI

Former Punjab convener of the AAP, Sucha Singh Chhotepur. His ouster, observers feel, was the beginning of the AAP's slide in Punjab. Photo: PTI

The wreckage of the vehicle in which an explosive device was planted, at the site of the bomb blast in Maur on February 1. Photo: PTI

Supporters of the Congress celebrate its victory in Chandigarh on March 11. Photo: Reuters/Ajay Verma

Former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal after tendering his resignation on March 12. Photo: By Special Arrangement

By voting the Congress to power, Punjab has opted for continuity and change. A series of tactical errors seem to have stopped the widely predicted AAP wave.

ON the afternoon of March 11, hours after it became clear that the Congress was well on its way to winning a decisive victory in Punjab’s Assembly elections, Captain Amarinder Singh, along with other party leaders, was sitting in the front yard of his house in Chandigarh to share with journalists his initial reactions on the victory. After he made some initial comments thanking the voters and his party volunteers, journalists asked Amarinder Singh about the electoral performance of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was widely expected to do better. Not known to mince words, the State Congress president and soon-to-be Chief Minister said: “I have been saying since day one that Punjabi voters are very perceptive and make decisions wisely. They understood that the Aam Aadmi Party has no leadership, nothing. We have seen these things many times. I have always said that a third force comes up [during elections].... I have contested 15 elections. In the end, people come towards one party. This is what I call a fair-weather storm. I think it is over. I think he [Kejriwal] is a summer storm, he came and he’s gone.”

These broad-brush descriptions of the AAP and Kejriwal were in stark contrast to the predictions of a variety of election watchers in Punjab, which went to the polls on February 4 and witnessed a voter turnout of 78.6 per cent. As it turned out, the Congress performed much better than its own expectations by winning 77 seats and the AAP and its alliance partner, the Lok Insaaf Party (LIP), came a distant second with 22 seats. The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) combine won 18 seats. If the Congress’ victory in almost two-thirds of the Assembly seats was unexpected, the SAD-BJP’s expected rout did not go according to the script either. Not only did the former Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, and the former Deputy Chief Minister, Sukhbir Badal, win their own seats, but the SAD-BJP combine also got 25.2 per cent of the votes. Though it was substantially less than its 2012 tally of 34.73 per cent, it was more than what the AAP polled this time: 23.7 per cent. Even Bikram Singh Majithia, the infamous Minister in the Badal government who was labelled a “drug lord” during the elections, was re-elected, with an over 23,000-vote margin in his constituency of Majitha. What definitely came as a rude shock for the AAP was the drastically diminished performance compared with the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it first contested elections in the State. The party had led in 33 Assembly constituencies and won a vote share of 24.4 per cent then. In 2017, its reach in Malwa in southern Punjab shrank, and drew a blank in the Majha region in north Punjab, and won only two seats in the Doaba region in central Punjab.

Explaining his assessment of the reasons for the Congress’ success, Amarinder Singh mentioned three distinct aspects of the electoral outcome: the “AAP bubble” had burst, and people had seen through the party; the Maur blasts (three people, including a Congress worker, were killed in two blasts suspected to be the handiwork of Khalistani separatists, in Maur town outside Bathinda city during a road show of the local Congress candidate) and the AAP’s “links” with Khalistani extremists had put off voters; and, finally, support from Deras (caste-based cults that seek to influence voters) for the SAD a couple of days before polling had provoked a “counter-reaction from people and worked in favour of the Congress”. He was referring to the support extended to the SAD by the Dera Sacha Sauda, a sect comprising mostly oppressed caste Sikhs with the charismatic Baba Ram Rahim as the head. An aspect of the Congress’ performance that baffled election watchers is the fact that although its vote share fell from 40.09 per cent in 2012 to 38.5 per cent in 2017, it increased its tally from 46 to 77 seats.

Many, including leaders of the Congress and the AAP, could not figure out why the supposed wave in south Punjab’s Malwa region in favour of the AAP did not materialise. Professor Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University has been studying the State’s politics and elections for over a decade. He has also been involved in election surveys for the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Speaking to Frontline, he conceded that he had anticipated at least 30 seats for the AAP in Malwa (the party won 18 seats in the region and two in central Punjab’s Doaba region). He felt that the Congress and SAD-BJP coming together to conduct a vilification campaign against the AAP by successfully portraying it as being close to Khalistani extremists and accusing it of being anarchic could have something to do with it.

AAP’s slide

Prof. Kumar explained the unexpected verdict handed out by Punjab’s voters thus: “In Amarinder Singh, they saw continuity and change. You know, change in a cosmetic sense; change in power. And Amarinder Singh’s is a credible face, which was not the case with the AAP, which did not have a credible Sikh to project as its chief ministerial candidate. People were asking if comedians such as Bhagwant Mann and Gurpreet Ghuggi would become Chief Ministers. The AAP lacked knowledge of booth-level ground realities, especially social factors that could sway voters. And they were arrogant, which prevented them from noting the Congress’ rise since November 2016.” According to him, the ouster of former AAP convener for Punjab, Sucha Singh Chhotepur, for alleged corruption was the point when the party started going downhill during its long election campaign.

A section of the AAP’s Punjab leadership appears to concur with Prof. Kumar’s assessment of the impact of Chhotepur’s ouster. “Our campaign strategy has been proved wrong. It started from the Chhotepur episode,” conceded Kanwar Sandhu, chairman of the AAP’s Punjab Dialogue initiative, who was elected from the Kharar constituency in Rupnagar district. He added that the party leaders would meet soon and discuss in detail the reasons for its poor performance and refused to elaborate on that.

Another senior AAP leader, however, was more candid. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: “The slide started with the Chhotepur episode. We had a victory on our hands which we frittered away. We cooked our goose for short-term gains and see where it has taken us. Our strategy went awry. Over dependence on just one campaigner, Bhagwant Mann, did not help. He is not capable of taking the party’s message to the voter in a serious way. I think voters in Punjab saw through the fact that the top Delhi leadership doesn’t trust the Punjab leadership.” The AAP’s top leadership in Delhi went into a huddle and did not communicate with the media. The party’s Punjab convener, Gurpreet Ghuggi Waraich, in a written statement, pointed out that the AAP had emerged as the main opposition party in the Assembly.

While the AAP-led alliance may have emerged as the principal opposition with 22 seats, the SAD-BJP alliance is close behind them with 18 seats and may not be a silent second opposition. Prof. Kumar pointed out that the SAD, which may have lost a substantial part of its vote share to the AAP, has retained its core Panthic (conservative Sikh) voter base, and that was evident in its 25.2 per cent vote share despite losing badly.

Along with the BJP’s 5.4 percent vote share, the SAD-BJP alliance has a higher vote share of 30.6 per cent compared with the AAP-LIP alliance’s 24.8 per cent. This may be seen as one of the indicators of the success of the campaign by the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance against the AAP. It also indicates, according to some commentators, that some Akalis, in the face of certain defeat, might have preferred a “known devil” (the Congress) to an “unknown devil” (the AAP).

This election also confirms that verdicts have become unpredictable in Punjab, after the unexpected victory of the SAD-BJP alliance for a second time in 2012 and the unforeseen rise of the AAP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Amarinder Singh reiterated the electoral commitments the party had made during the campaign: eradicating the drug menace in four weeks, implementing a loan waiver scheme for farmers and resolving their indebtedness, and taking up initiatives in the health care and education sectors. He also mentioned that his government, in its first Cabinet meeting, would take 100 critical decisions that do not have financial implications. It remains to be seen whether he can deliver on his promise of real change.

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