With the faction-ridden Shiromani Akali Dal going downhill, the Congress(I) hopes for a landslide win in the February elections to the Punjab Assembly.
CHARAN DAS' ramshackle tyre repair shop has been festooned with Congress(I) flags, advertising the party to travellers zipping down the busy highway that runs past the tiny village of Adda Haddowal near Hoshiarpur. It is not, Das is at pains to explain, a declaration of his ideology. Until Punjab's Lok Sabha elections are held in February, the local unit of the Congress(I) will pay him a small sum for the use of the space. But there are no Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) flags to be seen in this village or, for that matter, anywhere else. "Of course not," the shopkeeper explains, "why would you spend good money on publicity if you know you're going to lose anyway?" With the SAD's core voters torn between the rival groups led by Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and his arch-rival Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and the State itself in the midst of a growing economic crisis, more and more people share the Hoshiarpur shopkeeper's assessment.
The more optimistic elements in the Congress(I) assert that the party, despite its own factional power struggles, is headed towards a historic landslide. Even the more cautious among the party's leaders believe that a comfortable majority awaits it in the Punjab Assembly, along the lines of its success in eight of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in the last general elections.
Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee(I) chief Amarinder Singh "maharaja" to many residents of Patiala (the centre of the princely state which his ancestors ruled for centuries), seems confident that he will rule again, this time as Chief Minister. The results of a pre-election survey commissioned by the Congress(I) and carried out by a south India-based market research organisation, had just come in. "Fifty-nine per cent of the people in Anandpur want a new government," Amarinder Singh said happily, "49 per cent in Pathankot, 61 per cent in Wagah and 60 per cent in Kharar. This is going to be a landslide, mark my words."
Chief Minister Badal might pride himself on having led the first Akali government ever to have completed a full term in office, but evidence that voters do not see the period as a happy one is not hard to come by. On December 11, the Congress(I) routed the SAD-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance in the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation elections, winning 13 of the 20 seats. The Chandigarh Vikas Manch, a local organisation of Congress(I) rebels, picked up three seats, with the BJP managing to secure just three seats, and the SAD only one. While Chandigarh residents are not represented in the Punjab Assembly, since the city is a Union Territory, their views tend to mirror those of urban Punjab.
The Chandigarh results, given that the city was until recently something of a BJP citadel, have left little doubt that both Sikh and Hindu urban residents are fed up with the SAD's record in office. If the emphatic rejection of the BJP by voters in Chandigarh is mirrored in major cities across the State during the elections, that in itself would spell serious trouble for the alliance, whose 1996 victory depended largely on urban Hindu votes. But urban voter distrust is not Badal's only problem. An estimated Rs.300 crores owed to commission agents for procuring October's paddy harvest has yet to be paid out. They, in turn, have not been able to make payments to farmers, who therefore have yet to see the record minimum support price secured by Badal turned into money in their hands.
BADAL'S best hope of salvaging something for the ruins, a rapprochement with the Tohra group, now seems out of the question. In November, Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti issued an appeal to the Akali factions to unite, and work together to defeat the Congress(I). While Sangrur MP Simranjit Singh Mann flatly refused to accept Badal's leadership, Tohra said that he would consider talks with the mainstream SAD if the Chief Minister apologised at the Akal Takht for his "past wrong-doings". Baba Sarbjot Singh Bedi, the head of the coalition of Akali dissidents, the Panthic Morcha, went further at a press conference on December 5, stating that the minimum precondition for Akali unity was that Badal resign.
But Badal flatly rejected the demands. Instead, he moved to secure his flanks from attacks by the religious Right. On November 27, the Chief Minister ensured that his Officer on Special Duty and trusted aide Kirpal Singh Badungar was elected as the new president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Badal acted soon after he saw signs that the former president, Jagdev Singh Talwandi, was flirting with the Tohra faction. In the wake of a spate of burnings of copies of the Guru Granth Sahib by followers of religious leader Piara Singh in October, Talwandi had set up an SGPC inquisition into the links of major SAD politicians with the controversial godman. He had then charged Badungar with being a follower of Piara Singh, a thinly veiled attack on Badal.
Badungar's election incensed the Akali dissidents - Tohra camp follower Sukhdev Singh Bhaur even claimed that Badal had manipulated the Akal Takht Jathedar into absolving the new SGPC president of heresy - but could generate very real gains for Badal. Although the emphatic break with Talwandi more or less made any progress towards factional unity impossible, it will ensure that Badal does not face any sniping in the runup to the Assembly elections.
It will also give the Chief Minister some level of control over the SGPC in the probable event of his defeat in February. Such control will be politically crucial, for elections to the General House of the SGPC are scheduled to be held in June 2002. Fortynine lakh voters had registered for the last elections, held five years ago, but less than half that number have come forward so far. Whoever has the resources to push up voter registration will have an obvious advantage when going into the elections.
Another major source of support for Badal is Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Last month, the Prime Minister handed over Rs.1,500 crores for a welter of urban infrastructure schemes, which should help take at least some pressure off Badal's near-bankrupt government. The Punjab government has taken loans from a several financial institutions to fund non-Plan projects handed out by the Chief Minister personally to party-affiliated rural petitioners who attend his Sangat Darshan gatherings, a process which has siphoned money away from serious development activity. From December 1, the government has also sought to appease the BJP's business backers by abolishing octroi.
Some 150 municipalities, which used to gather the octroi, will now have to be refunded upwards of Rs.200 crores, for which the Prime Minister is expected to help with another short-term loan.
THROWING cash at voters is not, however, likely to do much to defuse the palpable anti-government feeling in Punjab. The huge rallies addressed by Amarinder Singh bear witness to the fact that the Congress(I) has become a credible political force in the State once again. The Congress(I) leader's major problem, for the moment, is infighting.
After defeats in byelections at Nawanshahar, Sunam and Majitha, former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal had led a delegation to New Delhi to complain about Amarinder Singh's management of the party. She, however, received short shrift from the Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi and has since been silent.
Another dissident, Jagmeet Singh Brar, has also been ambiguous in the matter of his support to Amarinder Singh. Spats over seat allocations have already broken out at recent rallies, and could hinder a smooth election campaign.
Should the Congress(I) fail to secure a decisive majority, or should the BJP at a later stage seek to bring down the government, such simmering factional feuds could become significant. The prospect of a post-election coup is, in fact, a very real one. A new Congress(I) government would also have to face the unenviable task of sorting out the financial mess that the SAD government would have left behind. Despite a massive loan waiver of terrorism-related expenditure, Punjab's cumulative debt of Rs.63,000 crores is now larger than its entire annual State Domestic Product. On top of all this, Punjab's traditional wheat-rice agriculture is on the verge of a collapse.
A serious bollworm infestation saw cotton production fall from 270,000 bales in 2000 to just 100,000 bales this year. Much of the countryside is dotted by huge mountains of unsold grain, the consequence of the Union government's flawed food policies. In April, when the next wheat crop begins to come in, there will be no space to store the harvest.
Few of these substantive issues are likely to figure prominently in newspapers, which are likely to be dominated by the mechanics of putting together the final alliances that will go into battle next year. The Communist Party of India has already announced that it will ally with the Congress(I), although the details of seat sharing have yet to be worked out. The BJP and the SAD, too, are in the midst of seat-sharing discussions, which are likely to be problematic since the BJP has asked for a larger number of constituencies than in the past. The Panthic Morcha, for its part, has found a partner in the Bahujan Samaj Party, which could eat into the Congress(I) vote bank in some Dalit clusters. But the real significance of the coming elections will lie not in this fact but in the meaning of the results for Punjab's future.
Amarinder Singh, with his reputation for personal honesty, will have an opportunity to place progress, not arcane religious issues and communal feuds, at the centre of political discourse in Punjab. The Congress(I) leader has ambitious plans to change Punjab's agricultural scene, and to attract industrial investment.
He told Frontline: "We have identified areas of wasteful government expenditure which we can axe, and should raise about Rs.3,000 crores by doing this. We believe that we can also raise another Rs.1,000 crores by doing away with leakages in tax collections. That should help with the day-to-day running of the State...But, in the longer term, we need to break the dependence of Punjab's agriculture on wheat and rice, for which we are already paying far higher than world prices. We need to bring about diversification, and encourage the production of high value crops. We also need to create a better industrial climate, by doing away with the irrational industrial regime which has run textile, engineering and shelling units to the ground."
He is also the first major politician in many years who is talking about the State's appalling record in the field of education - it ranks 15th among India's States in literacy levels, despite its affluence - and about building a social security system for the landless poor and marginal farmers. "The problem with Akali politics is that it starts with Aurangazeb and ends a few years later. No one in the villages today is worried about what someone did or did not do 300 years ago. The issues are unemployment, corruption, and the state of the economy. People want action to combat inflation, they want drinking water, electricity, schools and decent roads."
Whether Amarinder Singh will be able to push through such reform in the face of a system widely believed to have become India's most corrupt in the course of the Badal years, however, is another question. And should the Congress(I) fail to translate its agenda for progress into real economic development, the pendulum will swing again to the religious Right: with potentially calamitous consequences for Punjab.