ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS: PUNJAB

Punjab Assembly elections: No front runners

Print edition : February 11, 2022

Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi addressing a rally at Rajpura in Patiala on January 7. Photo: PTI

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister, with the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann in Chandigarh on January 18. Photo: PTI

Former Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh (centre) with BJP Punjab president Ashwani Sharma (left), Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri (third right) and other BJP leaders at a rally in Ferozepur on January 5. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

The Congress hopes to cash in on Dalit votes, the AAP banks on Bhagwant Mann’s popularity, the BJP hopes to break ground with Amarinder Singh in tow, and its erstwhile ally the Akali Dal faces an uphill task trying to win the trust of the people.

THE appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister of Punjab following the ouster of Captain Amarinder Singh towards the end of last year came as a surprise. But the appointment of Bhagwant Mann as the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) chief ministerial candidate shortly after the Lohri festival on January 13 had an air of predictability, even inevitability. While the Congress had many aspirants for the top post, the AAP, in the absence of grassroots leadership, hardly had a choice. When the Congress high command pitchforked Channi, a Dalit leader, to the Chief Minister’s post, it seemed both a politically wise and tactically smart decision. The party felt Channi, who was not known to ruffle feathers, would be able to find a workable relationship with Navjot Singh Sidhu, the high-strung State party chief who had virtually screamed his way to the post, replacing veteran leader Sunil Jakhar.

Crucially, from the point of view of vote-bank politics, Channi was a Dalit and the first person from the community to be the State’s Chief Minister. His appointment took the wind out of the sails of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) early alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and its offer of the Deputy Chief Minister’s post to a Dalit if elected to power. Incidentally, realising the value of the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) people’s votes, leaders cutting across party lines had asked the Election Commission of India to defer the Assembly election from February 14 to 20 as a vast number of S.C. members were likely to go to Varanasi to celebrate Guru Ravidas Jayanti on February 16. Considering that the State has nearly five million Guru Ravidas followers, the Election Commission decided to hold the election on February 20. The Dalit vote is crucial in 23 of the 117 constituencies. The ruling Congress is hoping to make big gains in Doaba, a region dominated by the Dalit community.

Channi’s appointment gave a fresh impetus to the party, which had been floundering in Punjab. The Navjot Sidhu-Amarinder Singh saga had played out for too long. There were too many allegations against Amarinder Singh for even party supremo Sonia Gandh, known to have a soft corner for the Captain, to ignore. Soon after he was shown the door, Amarinder Singh formed the Punjab Lok Congress and announced an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Three MLAs loyal to Amarinder Singh joined the BJP. This substantiated Sidhu’s charge that the former Chief Minister had a tacit understanding with the BJP, and that he was deliberately going slow with investigations in the much-publicised sacrilege case, which had been dragging on since 2017, and in acting against the drug and sand mafia. Amarinder Singh’s party has been allotted a hockey stick and ball as its election symbol. His detractors mocked the former Chief Minister, saying he would score an own goal.

It is too early in the campaign to draw a conclusion, but from the low turnout at Ferozepur where he was to share the stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the latter opted out citing a security risk, Amarinder Singh seems to have written the epitaph of his political career. He was Chief Minister for nearly two terms besides commanding unwavering allegiance of Punjab Congress MLAs for long. His decision to forge an alliance with the BJP smacked of desperation for both parties. Amarinder Singh was short of friends and manpower to contest the Assembly election. The BJP had lost its decades-old electoral ally, the SAD. Following the situation during the protracted farmers’ struggle when BJP MLAs and MPs could not enter their constituencies for some time, an alliance with Amarinder Singh provided a modicum of dignity to the party and seemed to open the door for its comeback in the State. Significantly, Punjab has been lukewarm to Modi and the BJP; the party failed to make major inroads in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Its prospects are unlikely to improve in this round of election.

SAD aimless

Not that the SAD is on a strong wicket. Riven with dissensions, and without a major issue on which to peg its campaign, the Badals’ party is without a direction. It parted ways with the BJP as it did not want to be singed by the burning issue of farm laws. However, in the eyes of the discerning voter, the SAD was party to the drafting of the farm laws. Harsimrat Kaur was the Minister for Food Processing Industries in the Modi Ministry before the SAD quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The party, like the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, has been slow in starting its election campaign unlike the AAP and the Congress, whose leaders have been trading punches from the early days. Former Patiala Mayor Ajitpal Singh Kohli of the SAD switched loyalties to the AAP, which has fielded him from the Amritsar Urban seat, currently represented by Amarinder Singh. With Kohli’s nomination, the AAP completed its 10th list of candidates accounting for 112 seats of the 117 seats.

Incidentally, Delhi Chief Minister and AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, Delhi Jal Board vice chairman Raghav Chadha and other senior AAP leaders have been travelling to Punjab regularly in recent weeks, trying to provide an alternative to the dissension-ridden Congress. As if the Amarinder Singh-Navjot Sidhu public feud was not enough to open the wounds in the Punjab Congress, the Congress chief has not missed any opportunity to attack Channi and his own party. Be it over the issue of the appointment of top police officials or acting against those responsible for the Guru Granth Sahib sacrilege, or even the announcement of the party’s chief ministerial face, Navjot Sidhu has not been in alignment with Channi.

Pargat Singh, Sidhu loyalist and Minister of Education and Sports in the Channi Cabinet, terms this regular show of difference of opinion “a play of healthy democracy”, but in the public eye the lingering impression is that the Punjab Congress is a divided party. However, for all Navjot Sidhu’s recriminations and protestations, Channi remains the face of the party in this election. He has made a good beginning. Pitching himself as the actual aam aadmi (common man), he is happy to talk about his humble beginnings. On the campaign trail, he has endeared himself to voters by asking the crowds to draw closer to him as he was “their brother”. Taking a leaf out of the Kejriwal book in Delhi, the Congress has promised 300 units of free electricity to farmers. Taking the fight right into the rival’s camp, it has even been advertising at Delhi Metro stations. Navjot Sidhu has promised Rs.2,000 to every woman home-maker and eight liquefied petroleum gas cylinders every year if the party returns to power. In another women-centric move, he promised a two-wheeler to every girl seeking admission to college, and Rs.20,000 for clearing the senior secondary school examination. The party plans to build 28 skill development centres for women and introduce a State version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The party’s cause has been helped by infusion of fresh blood. Popular Hindi film actor Sonu Sood’s sister, Malvika Sood Sachar, a social activist and computer engineer, joined the party in Moga in the presence of Channi and Navjot Sidhu. She was, predictably, declared the party’s candidate from Moga. Equally predictably, the denial of the party ticket sent Moga MLA Harjot Kamal into the waiting arms of the BJP. Whether he can revive the wilting lotus in Punjab remains to be seen, with Malvika Sood hoping to ride on the crest of the goodwill her brother enjoys following the help he rendered to thousands of needy people during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its first list of 86 candidates, the Congress retained all but four sitting legislators.

AAP’s chief ministerial face

The AAP chose Bhagwant Mann as its chief ministerial face. The announcement made by Kejriwal at Mohali had no element of drama in it nor did it cause any heartburning in the party ranks. Before the announcement, the party claims to have conducted a telephonic opinion poll for the position. Mann is said to have won the poll handsomely. Mann, incidentally, is the only AAP candidate from Punjab to have retained his Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 election. Kejriwal said: “Everywhere I went people would ask me about the party’s chief ministerial face. I would say that the party would choose a face that everyone would be proud of. We decided to conduct a poll to allow people to choose their CM candidate. An astounding 93 per cent of the voters voted in favour of Bhagwant Mann.” Kejriwal later challenged the Congress to name its chief ministerial face.

The choice of Mann was partly because of the absence of an alternative. That Mann, who had sought this slot in 2017, had to wait for five years, is attributed to his drinking problem, an issue raised by AAP leader Gurpreet Guggi on more than one occasion. During the campaign for the Lok Sabha election, Kejriwal announced on stage in Barnala that Mann had given up drinking for the sake of the State. Mann concurred, only to relapse into his habitual shortcomings soon after the election. Now, Mann has got what he had coveted.

The leadership’s hand was forced by the fact that in spite of his weaknesses, Mann was the party’s biggest crowd puller in the State. Much before the arrival of the digital age, millions of people in Punjab followed his cassettes and comedies. The party hopes that the comedian’s fan following will translate into votes. Mann spoke about the unemployment problem, agrarian crisis and steep electricity tariffs in the State and described the Congress and the BJP as two sides of the same coin. The party hopes to bring the Delhi Model of “Free electricity, Mohalla clinics” to Punjab. Interestingly, Kejriwal promised a dole of Rs.1,000 to every woman in the State, 16,000 mohalla clinics and round-the-clock free electricity, besides possible ghar wapasi of Punjabis settled in Canada.

There is a new entrant in the electoral arena hoping to queer the pitch for both the Congress and the AAP. The Samyukt Samaj Morcha formed by farmers has decided to contest the election hoping to translate the support for the anti-farm laws agitation into votes. However, in the absence of a well-oiled election machinery, seasoned cadre base and known faces in the contest, the Morcha may get more media attention than seats in the Assembly. With the two farmers’ leaders Balbir Singh Rajewal and Jagjit Singh Dallewal not always on the same page, it appears that the election debutants are also plagued by the age-old issue of internal dissension. Rajewal, 77, heads the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal) and Dallewal heads the State unit of the BKU Ekta Sidupur.

Whoever stems the divide within may decide which party emerges on the top on March 10, the day the election are scheduled to be announced.