Punjab pointers

Published : Sep 15, 2001 00:00 IST

Pre-election politics in Punjab presents a complicated melange. But one fact is obvious: the SAD-BJP ruling alliance will need nothing short of a miracle to retain power.

LAST month, two major media publications carried opinion poll findings that Prakash Singh Badal is perceived to be the best-ever Chief Minister of Punjab. But if the odds offered by small-town bookmakers in the State are anything to go by, the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance will need a minor miracle to secure a re-election. And Punjab may need a miracle of a considerably larger scale in order to undo the effects of five years of SAD-BJP rule.

The next Assembly elections in Punjab must be held before March, and the opponents of the ruling alliance smell victory. Their optimism is founded on the stark facts of the SAD-BJP's record in office. Between April 1999 and January 2001, Punjab could attract just 2 per cent of all public and private investment in India. Its borrowings have increased sharply, and interest on debt now accounts for over a third of all non-Plan revenue expenditure. The share of the primary sector in gross State domestic product fell to 40.5 per cent in 1998-99, down 10 percentage points from 1990-1991. Punjab's human development indices are just as dismal. Its sex ratio, the number of women per 1,000 men, is the worst in India; it fell from 882 in 1991 to 874 this year. Although 28 per cent of the State's population belongs to the Scheduled Castes, half of whom are below the poverty line, less than 8 per cent of the budget is targeted to benefit Dalits.

Among those looking to cash in on the public discontent are the Akali factions that are hostile to Badal. On August 5, the Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal of Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the Akali Dal (Amritsar) of Simranjit Singh Mann and SAD dissident and former Assembly Speaker Ravi Inder Singh announced the formation of the Panthic Morcha (Sikh Community Front). The Morcha is headed by a religious figure, Sarbjot Singh Bedi, of the ultra-orthodox Gurmat Sidhant Pracharak Sant Samaj. Ranjit Singh and Jasbir Singh Rode, both former jathedars of the Akal Takht and sympathetic to the revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, are also key figures in the alliance. Apart from calling on Sikhs to boycott Badal for his alleged acts of apostasy, the Morcha has said that it will seek to reinstall Ranjit Singh as the jathedar of the Akal Takht.

While the Morcha's constituent parties are expected to contest the elections on their own, the contours of their long-term strategy are becoming evident. At an August 18 meeting in the Golden Temple, Bedi said that all SAD factions would be united by the next Baisakhi day, which falls on April 13. Since the Assembly elections will be over by then, the Morcha clearly hopes to emerge as the inheritor of a post-Badal SAD. The presence of Ravi Inder Singh, who is not known for any ideological affinity with religious chauvinists such as Tohra and Mann, is also a clear signal that the Panthic Morcha's doors are open for centrist SAD politicians. What is certain is that the Morcha will have some impact on the SAD's prospects in key seats, for the Morcha is expected to wean away a part of the SAD's traditional Sikh constituency.

SUCH a division of the traditional Akali votes would be of obvious benefit to a resurgent Congress(I). After years of bickering, the party's three main factions seem to have come to something that resembles peace. At a recent rally in Mansa, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee(I) chief Amarinder Singh shared the stage with his two most trenchant inner-party critics - former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Jagmeet Singh Brar. In the course of his speech Brar made it clear that he accepted Amarinder Singh as the party's candidate for the post of Chief Minister. The rapprochement was secured after a prolonged peace-making mission on the orders of the Congress(I)'s central leadership. A coordination committee led by senior party leader Motilal Vohra promised that each of the party's main leaders would have a fair level of representation in the matter of ticket allocation.

Recent Congress(I) mobilisations seem to suggest that the new unity could have profound political results. Local newspapers reported that among three competing rallies held on Independence Day at Issru, near Ludhiana, the turnout was the largest at the Congress rally. Not everyone, however, is certain that the truce Amarinder Singh, Brar and Bhattal have called will survive the strains of ticket allocation. At a press conference after the Mansa rally, Brar appeared to retract from his commitment made to the PPCC chief. "We had recommended his name to the central leadership," he said, "but they said no decision would be taken just yet. So as things stand there are at least three Congress(I) candidates for the post of Chief Minister, including myself." Bhattal, too, is believed to be lobbying allies inside the party and among possible coalition partners for support.

Congress(I) strategists face more serious problems as well. For one, its key ally in Punjab, the Communist Party of India (CPI), is determined to contest at least 30 of the 117 Assembly seats. "The next elections," argues CPI State secretary Joginder Dayal, "are certain to see a hung Assembly. There is an urgent need to challenge the saffronisation of the administration by the SAD-BJP, but we will only ally with the Congress(I) on honourable terms."

Without the CPI's support, the Congress(I) knows that Dayal's prediction will most certainly become fact. But the number of seats the CPI is demanding will also leave Amarinder Singh with few ticket choices with which to secure his own authority in the Congress(I). The Congress(I) will also have to arrive at some kind of accommodation with other secular parties, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has considerable influence in some pockets of Punjab.

Dalit voters are also certain to have a major impact on the Congress(I)'s fortunes. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), whose rise in Punjab led to Dalit voters moving away from the Congress(I), has said that it will contest the elections independently but will support the Panthic Morcha's Ravi Inder Singh should he seek to become Chief Minister. Given the party's record in Punjab, many observers believe that BSP chief Kanshi Ram has struck some sort of opportunistic deal with the SAD. The BSP won 7.5 per cent of the vote in 1997, enabling the SAD-BJP's triumph. The principal impact of the BSP's decision not to join a Congress(I)-CPI alliance this time as well would be to draw potential voters away from the secular formation. The Congress(I), for its part, has started working to undermine the support base of the BSP, promising Dalit families free electricity and homes on unused village community lands.

What are Badal's options now? One tactic would be simply to buy his way out of trouble. Many people believe that the Chief Minister will seek an early election at the end of the paddy harvest season, which began in late August. With cash in their hands, SAD leaders argue, Sikh farmers, who form the core of the SAD constituency, will stay with the party. The problem is that such a political victory comes at a price. The all-time record minimum support price (MSP) of Rs.610 paid for the last wheat crop delighted farmers; Badal claimed he had blocked Central plans to reduce it to Rs.520. But Punjab is now saddled with some 165,000 tonnes of over-priced, rapidly-rotting wheat that other States are unwilling to purchase. The Food Corporation of India is yet to pay Punjab Rs.200 crores for wheat purchased, and the State, having exhausted its Reserve Bank of India food credit, may have trouble buying the paddy crop.

Even if the Chief Minister succeeds in purchasing the support of voters, he may find it difficult to handle the dissidents in his own party. The latest round of sniping from the religious Right was initiated by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which has been demanding that Sehajdhari Sikhs be denied the right to contest or vote in elections to the religious body. Sehajdhari Sikhs - those who accept the faith but not some ritual practices, such as not cutting their hair - are permitted by the 1925 Sikh Gurdwaras Act to vote in SGPC elections, a right the Sikh far Right has long contested. SGPC president Jagdev Singh Talwandi fired the most recent shots of this long-running battle, saying on August 29 that he would move the Supreme Court if the Union government did not amend the 1925 Act. Badal has maintained a stoic silence on the issue, knowing as he does that any such amendment would antagonise many Sehajdhari Sikhs who have in the past voted for the SAD. Talwandi's crusade on Sehajdhari Sikhs has the support of Mann and Tohra, which fact has obvious significance in the current context.

Religious hawks hovering overhead are not Badal's only concern. Most observers of Punjab politics agree that the coming elections are likely to see a significant erosion in the BJP's constituency among urban Hindus. For one, the party has failed to deliver on key pre-election promises to its supporters among traders and businessmen, notably that octroi would be waived. The BJP's Punjab unit president Brij Lal Rinwa devoted an entire press conference in Chandigarh on August 29 to listing all that the party had done to reduce sales tax levels and to expedite the settlement of tax disputes, but few people seem wholly convinced about his claims. More important, though, the Sikh idiom of the SAD has alienated many urban Hindus. Urban Hindus believe that the principal beneficiaries of the SAD-BJP alliance have been rural Sikhs. While some have responded by looking to fascist parties like the Shiv Sena, which intends to field 30 candidates in the coming elections, others have turned back to the Congress(I).

Can Badal pull off a miracle win? There are some signs that a magic trick is indeed in the making. At a speech made in Baba Bakala on August 4, the Chief Minister sought to divert attention from the SAD-BJP alliance's record in governance, by promising to implement the Anandpur Sahib resolution on federal autonomy, and criticising the Congress(I) for its role in Operation Bluestar and the Delhi anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The use of these well-worn weapons comes at a time when the other great theme of Akali politics, the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal, has taken centre stage. On August 9, the Supreme Court asked Punjab and Haryana to arrive at an agreement on sharing river waters, failing which it would deliver a final judgment. The States having failed to do so, a judicial pronouncement is now expected. If the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is able to stitch together a deal that addresses the SAD's historic grievances, both could march into the elections with something that at least resembles credibility.

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