Punjab: The paradox of Congress resurgence and radical rise

The State witnessed a peculiar trend—resurgence of Congress and rise of radical Sikh elements, triggering concerns about its future trajectory.

Published : Jun 12, 2024 00:12 IST - 7 MINS READ

Former Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi celebrates his win from Jalandhar on June 4.

Former Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi celebrates his win from Jalandhar on June 4. | Photo Credit: Sunny Sehgal/ANI

The outcome of the Lok Sabha election in Punjab, while presenting significant takeaways, also presents an interesting and intriguing paradox. On the one hand, the Congress, in spite of its tainted history of Operation Blue Star in 1984 and the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed, won seven of the 13 seats. On the other, in Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot constituencies, a parallel undercurrent on these sensitive issues polarised voters against the Congress and ensured the rise of radicals.

However, the triumph of Amritpal Singh, the jailed Khalistan ideologue (from Khadoor Sahib) and the victory of another Sikh radical, Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa, in Faridkot, cannot be misconstrued as representing a Statewide endorsement of separatism. Still, the results are worrying as they have ramifications for the polity and social order in the border State. Strikingly, Amritpal won by 1.97 lakh votes, the highest among all the seats in the State. Khalsa also won with a decent margin of over 70,000 votes. The election results proved again that the State remains the only happy hunting ground for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) when it comes to Lok Sabha victories. The party managed to win three seats, but this must be seen in the context of its sweep of the Assembly election in 2022, winning 92 of 117 seats.

The victory for the Congress came, ironically, on a day that marked four decades of Operation Blue Star, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s mission to storm the Golden Temple to flush out militants that left her vulnerable. The radicals who won this time immediately announced that they would not celebrate their victory until June 6, the day Operation Blue Star ended in 1984, as a mark of solidarity.

What the outcome says

The Punjab electoral outcome in some way was also a subdued statement on the limited impact of the freebies offered by the incumbent government. Had it found resonance with the voters, the AAP would have romped home with a massive mandate.

Also Read | Contrarian Punjab may throw up a surprise again

The State, which is famed for its contrarian streak, also showed party hoppers their place. Of the 14 turncoats from the four major political parties, 12 lost. Another significant takeaway was the dominance of local issues and the appeal of individual candidates that determined voting preferences.

Although the Congress and the AAP are part of the INDIA bloc, there was no alliance in Punjab, unlike in Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, and Chandigarh. The Congress chose not to ally with the AAP chiefly because it wanted to maximise the palpable anger against the Bhagwant Mann government. The gamble paid off. The election was the first one without any party forming an alliance—each party was on its own.

SAD state of affairs

The election is significant for pushing to the fringe the oldest regional party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which won just one seat in Bathinda. The party now stares at an uncertain future. Bathinda was bagged by Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a former Union Minister and wife of SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal. Summing up the SAD’s predicament, an Akali leader quipped: “The Badal family won and the Akali Dal lost.” The SAD’s vote share plummeted from 27.76 per cent to 13.42 per cent.

The BJP, which contested alone for the first time in decades after parting ways with its long-time ally, the SAD, did not win a single seat but its vote share nearly doubled from 9.63 per cent in 2019 to 18.56 per cent.

In contrast, the Congress’ vote share came down from 40.12 per cent in 2019 to 26.30 per cent. But the AAP saw its vote share zoom up from 7.38 per cent in 2019 to 26.02 per cent.

Farmers against BJP

The statewide protests by farmers also impacted the BJP’s performance, especially in the hinterland, where BJP candidates were driven away, abused, and shown black flags. The BJP paid the price for the Centre’s inaction on a host of demands from farmer unions, including the MSP guarantee. The party’s chances were further hit by the Centre’s belligerent posturing against farmers and the police action against the movement of thousands of farmers headed towards the national capital.

Despite the odds stacked against the party, the BJP State president Sunil Jakhar told Frontline that the surge in the BJP’s vote share was testimony to the bright future ahead for the party. “Our eyes are set on the 2027 Assembly election. That will be a momentous year when the BJP will form its own government in Punjab.” He added that the party was unable to translate the gain in vote share into seats this time. BJP’s top leaders, including Preneet Kaur, wife of former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, lost on home turf. The BJP suffered on account of the urban-rural divide, gaining significantly in urban areas largely with the consolidation of the Hindu vote in the State, which is nearly 39 per cent.

The AAP’s baggage of 92 Assembly seats was a burden, and its inability to deliver on several promises, apart from not being able to curb the drug menace, hurt its prospects. Chief Minister Mann was the party’s lone warrior with AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s victim card having only limited appeal. The party did well on Mann’s home turf of Sangrur, a seat won by him against the radical Simranjit Singh Mann in the 2022 by-election. Mann put up a strong candidate in Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer who won with a huge margin.

The falling stock of the Mann Cabinet’s popularity can be gauged by the fact that four out of five Cabinet Ministers lost the election this time.

Congress comeback

The Congress was hobbled by the absence of several of its veteran leaders who had defected to the saffron fold. Despite this, it it made a remarkable comeback after its poor showing in the 2022 Assembly election by cashing in on the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Mann government. It also liberally trained its guns on the BJP for the predicament of farmers. The party kept its ammunition dry after the hugely popular Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala was brutally murdered by gangsters two years ago. In its election campaign, however, it presented Moosewala’s murder as a case against the AAP for denial of justice and the collapse of law and order in Punjab, and gained from this narrative.

The party also put its best foot forward, relying on tall leaders such as former Chief Minister Charanjit Channi, State president Amrinder Singh Raja Warring, and former Minister Sukhjinder Randhawa, all of whom won convincingly. As in 2019, the Congress won four seats in the Malwa region, the biggest and most influential region in Punjab.

Also Read | Alliance of convenience: AAP, Cong seal deal for Delhi, to go solo in Punjab

The pre-eminence of radicals on the political landscape, although limited, cannot be seen as a brief obsession expressed by the voters. Radicals like Simranjit Mann, who seek a separate state of Khalistan, have been electorally active for years. There are underlying reasons that brought the hardliners to the centre stage.

Unlike the Congress, the AAP or the BJP, Amritpal Singh and Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa did not have a well-oiled machinery or the bandwidth to contest elections. Their campaign focus remained limited to local issues, water dispute, Sikh Panthic subjects, eradication of drugs, the 1984 anti-Sikh genocide, and quest for justice. The release of Bandi Singhs, Sikh prisoners who are languishing in prison even after the completion of their prison terms, also featured prominently in their agenda.

On the ground, there was anger against the Bhagwant Mann government after the police detained hundreds of youths last year in the government’s overkill to arrest Amritpal. All this added up to convert radical sentiments into votes for the hardliners.

Gautam Dheer has been covering policy and politics in Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh for over two decades.

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