Messages from the States

Print edition : March 21, 1998
PRAVEEN SWAMI

Total seats 13Shiromani Akali Dal 8Bharatiya Janata Party 3Janata Dal 1Independents 1

THE Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine's sweep of the Lok Sabha seats in Punjab illustrates the collapse of secular political formations in the State. The right-wing alliance and its affiliates won all but the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat - which, given the fact that the SAD had vacated it for Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, can only notionally be termed a Janata Dal victory. Secular groups, including the Congress(I), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Left, have failed to define a coherent agenda to confront both the electoral arithmetic and ideological strategies of the SAD-BJP combine.

This election marks a decisive defeat of the Congress(I) and its campaign ally, the BSP. The two Congress(I) MPs who survived the SAD wave of 1996, when the SAD was allied with the BSP, suffered humiliating defeats this time. Film actor and political debutant Vinod Khanna defeated five-time MP Sukhbhans Kaur Bhinder by a margin of 1.09 lakh votes in Gurdaspur. Khanna's charisma undoubtedly attracted some votes, but he lacked a coherent political agenda; his victory suggests that the vote was a rejection of Bhinder's reduction of politics to a programme of disbursing patronage. Similarly, former Union Minister Raghunandan Lal Bhatia was crushed by BJP lightweight Daya Singh Sodhi. His margin of defeat, over 91,000 votes, again suggests an ideological rejection of the Congress(I).

Elsewhere in the State, the SAD-BJP swept the elections almost unchallenged. In some constituencies, infighting contributed to the Congress(I)'s debacle. In Tarn Taran, the SAD's Prem Singh Lalpura defeated former Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon's son Gurinder Kairon. To a great extent this defeat can be atrributed to the defection of Kairon family heavyweights to the SAD, notably former Punjab Minister Surinder Kairon. Local-level factionalism may also have played a role in Bhinder's defeat. It was almost certainly factionalism that cost the Congress(I) one of its traditional seats, Ludhiana. The SAD's Amrik Singh Ahliwal defeated the Congress(I)'s Gurcharan Singh Galib by a margin of 9,212 votes; the slender margin suggests that Hindus in urban Punjab are less than enthusiastic about the BJP's politics.

The meltdown in the BSP in the State also opened considerable space for the SAD-BJP combine. Kamal Chowdhury, who left the Congress(I) and joined the BJP when the Hoshiarpur seat was vacated for the BSP, beat C.D. Singh of the BSP by a margin of 65,332 votes. In Phillaur, SAD-backed BSP defector Satnam Singh Kainth defeated the BSP's Harbhajan Lakha by a margin of 68,053 votes. In Ferozepur too, the BSP's Mohan Singh Phallianwala was unable to take on the SAD's Zora Singh. In general, the BSP's alliance with the Congress(I) did little to aid the latter. In Ropar, Satwinderjit Kaur defeated the Congress(I)'s Mann Singh Manhera by a margin of over 84,000 votes; in Patiala, Amarinder Singh of the Congress(I) lost to the SAD's Prem Singh Chandumajra by about 33,000 votes. In Faridkot, a key constituency with a considerable Dalit population, Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal's son Sukhbir Badal defeated the Congress(I)'s Jagmeet Brar by a margin of 35,028 votes.

It would be facile to attribute the scale of the Congress(I) defeat to infighting or to the BSP's collapse alone. One important factor, which secular parties have not fully come to terms with, is the electoral arithmetic of the SAD-BJP alliance, which brings together land-owning Sikhs and sections of urban Sikhs and Hindu traders. The Communist Party of India (CPI) attempted to address this issue by asking its supporters to back secular candidates of the Congress(I)-BSP in constituencies where the party was not contesting, in return for the alliance's backing elsewhere. This tactic, however, met with little success; the CPI candidate in Bhatinda, B.S. Bhaura, was defeated by the SAD's Chatin Singh by a margin of 49,856 votes. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had also asked its supporters to back secular candidates, but again, its appeal had little impact.

The real issues might be more intractable than what alliance-making can address. Unlike in many other States, no anti-incumbency sentiment appeared to operate in Punjab, although the State Government's performance has been less than luminous. One reason for this might be that the consequences of the alliance's profligate populism - for example, its decision to provide electricity free of charge to farmers - have yet to be felt. More important, however, is the SAD-BJP's spurious, but effective, positioning of the alliance as the sole spokesman for regional identity and for Hindu-Sikh unity.

The SAD-BJP is perceived as representing at its core, a sometimes uneasy alliance between two religious communities sundered by the violence between 1982 and 1992, an alliance whose disruption many in Punjab believe will only result in a renewal of hostilities. If this politics is to be challenged, it will require sustained political and ideological engagement, not just election-eve alliances.

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