Contrarian Punjab may throw up a surprise again

The border State, where agrarian and drug crises are major issues, has always baffled pollsters by bucking national trends.

Published : May 27, 2024 18:14 IST - 8 MINS READ

Dharamvir Gandhi, the Congress candidate in Patiala, with supporters during a roadshow on May 18.

Dharamvir Gandhi, the Congress candidate in Patiala, with supporters during a roadshow on May 18. | Photo Credit: HARMEET SODHI/ANI

Punjab has often resisted popular mainstream trends and manifested a rather contrarian streak when it comes to electoral politics. This is one border State that the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi found difficult to make inroads into even when the voter euphoria for Modi swept the nation twice. In both 2014 and 2019, the party could win only two seats.

The BJP’s Hindutva push has so far found limited resonance in Punjab. In 2022, the State catapulted the AAP to power with an astonishing verdict the likes of which Punjab had not seen until then. The voters even booted out the 100-year-old Akali Dal that claims support on the basis of its Sikh Panthic credentials. Veteran political leaders such as Capt. Amarinder Singh and the influential Badal family and several others who once ruled the roost were also shown the door by voters.

Changed landscape

In this Lok Sabha election, the political landscape has changed completely. It is now marked by broken alliances and numerous turncoats, while radical sentiment is spurring new support for hardliners. The youth are still in the grip of the drug menace. All these, along with a protracted and belligerent agitation by farmers, have made Punjab an intriguing battleground.

Also Read | Narrative of AAP running Punjab from Delhi unlikely to bode well

The electoral contest is no longer a bipolar one between the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), or SAD (B). The AAP, a political greenhorn until a few years ago, now has a sizeable footprint, while the BJP, a former ally of the SAD, is keen to grow wings of its own for the first time in nearly three decades.

In 2019, the saffron party won only two seats with a 9.6 per cent vote share. It played second fiddle to the SAD, with urban constituents forming its core voter base. The first agitation against the now-repealed farm laws (in 2019) led to the SAD (B) and the BJP breaking their alliance of three decades.

Although there are challenges galore for the BJP after the break-up, the party also sees it as an opportunity to expand its footprint, which is why it rejected an offer by the SAD (B) to revive ties ahead of the election.

In the past, the BJP would contest in only three Lok Sabha constituencies as part of the seat-sharing agreement with the SAD, which took the lion’s share of 10 seats. This time, the BJP has put up candidates in all 13 seats. BJP insiders said the party may not be expecting to win many seats, but it hopes to increase its vote share.

Hope and despair

Maqbolpura on the outskirts of Amritsar is looking at everything with a mix of hope and despair. Dozens of motorcades of various political parties pass through the narrow lanes of this village, carefully manoeuvring past small houses on either side. Maqbolpura is notorious for drug use and deaths from drug overdose. Every family in the village has a story to narrate. This village hopes that some political party will show the resolve to save its future generations.

Farmers raising slogans after they were stopped from marching to protest at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally, in Gurdaspur on May 24.

Farmers raising slogans after they were stopped from marching to protest at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally, in Gurdaspur on May 24. | Photo Credit: RAMINDER PAL SINGH/ANI

The BJP’s candidate for the Amritsar seat is Taranjit Singh Sandhu, a former Ambassador to the US. He is sometimes referred to as “Samundri” to evoke the legacy of his grandfather Teja Singh Samundri, a founding member of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee who fought against the British and died in Lahore jail in 1926.

“Our focus is on holistic development. The BJP’s flagship schemes and other schemes have percolated to the last mile. But issues like drugs must be addressed on priority,” Sandhu said.

The BJP last won the Amritsar seat in 2009. Top leaders, including Arun Jaitley and Hardeep Singh Puri, had to bite the dust.

Protests against BJP

As if the challenges of a broken alliance and the quest for new candidates for all the seats were not enough, the BJP is at the receiving end of brickbats in the wake of the ongoing farmer protests in Punjab and Haryana. Farmers are putting up every possible resistance, showing black flags and hurling abuse at BJP candidates, to block the entry of the BJP into Punjab’s villages.

“These protests have been orchestrated by the AAP, which has colluded with the Congress. We have brought the matter to the notice of the Chief Electoral Officer. The BJP’s right to campaign in an election is being hampered,” State BJP chief Sunil Jakhar told Frontline.

Many see the BJP in Punjab as the old Congress. Many former Congress leaders, such as Amarinder Singh, Preneet Kaur, Sunil Jakhar, Ravneet Bittu, and Rana Gurjit, switched loyalties to join the saffron fold.

While Amarinder Singh and Sunil Jakhar are not contesting, Preneet Kaur, Amarinder’s wife, is the BJP candidate in Patiala. A tough battle is on the cards here as she is pitted against the Congress’ Dr Dharamvir Gandhi, a cardiologist, who was once with the AAP. “Our right to campaign is being denied by farm unions. Despite this, we are reaching out to the people with the BJP’s and Prime Minister Modi’s development agenda,” Preneet Kaur told Frontline.

No takers for Hindutva

Interestingly, the rhetoric surrounding the Ram Mandir seems subdued in Punjab, with BJP candidates focussing their campaign chiefly on the “Modi development” narrative.

Despite Modi’s amplified hyper-nationalism and national security pitch, and his focus on the country’s purported growing influence in the global order, the echo of these topics has remained faint in Punjab. Issues surrounding the agrarian crisis, minimum support price for crops, the drug menace, social security, and the reach of beneficiary schemes remain quintessential to the people and the polity.

The performance of the AAP will be keenly watched. Its popularity is seen as another example of Punjab’s contrarian tendency: 10 years ago the State gave the AAP its only four Lok Sabha MPs; today AAP does not have any MPs. The Sangrur seat that Bhagwant Mann vacated to become Chief Minister after the 2022 Assembly election, was wrested by Simranjit Singh Mann of the SAD (Amritsar), a former IPS officer and Khalistan ideologue.

AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal’s interim bail has come as a shot in the arm for the party. A good show in Punjab will bolster the AAP’s position in the INDIA bloc. But the party’s prospects are marred by many failed promises, such as Rs.1,000 for every woman in Punjab, and its inability to check the unbridled drug menace.

Pawan Kumar Tinu of the AAP at a roadshow before filing his nomination papers for the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat on May 13.

Pawan Kumar Tinu of the AAP at a roadshow before filing his nomination papers for the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat on May 13. | Photo Credit: SUNNY SEHGAL/ANI

AAP advantage

At the ground level, the Aam Aadmi clinics and free electricity up to 300 units to each consumer have buoyed the AAP’s prospects. Mann and Kejriwal extol the presence of nearly 830 such clinics in Punjab’s 22 districts across the three regions of Malwa, Majha, and Doaba. The benefits of free treatment, free medicines, and free diagnoses have reached even remote villages.

The Congress, unlike in Delhi and Chandigarh, did not agree on an alliance with the AAP in Punjab. In fact, the two parties are in direct contest. In 2019, the Congress won eight seats with a near 41 per cent vote share. But that was a different Congress then. Its face is not the same any more in Punjab, with the party having lost credibility with the exit of several stalwarts.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s experiment to effect a leadership change—replacing Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister with Charanjit Channi, a Dalit leader—a few months before the 2022 Assembly election failed.

Also Read | Farmers’ protest 2.0: On the difficult road to MSP

In fact, it proved counterproductive. The Dalit card was ineffective, again a pointer to Punjab’s contrarian streak. Although the State has the highest per capita population of Scheduled Castes in the country, at about 32 per cent, voters in 2022 discounted this factor and booted the Congress out.

The border State is also seeing a surge in radical sentiments in this election. Amritpal Singh, head of Waris Punjab De, currently lodged in Dibrugarh jail in Assam under the National Security Act, is contesting as an independent in Khadoor Sahib. He has been outspoken about his radical mindset, even claiming that he does not recognise the Constitution. In fact, there are at least six Khalistan ideologues, including Simranjit Singh Mann, in the fray this time, more than in 2019.

Meanwhile, the SAD(B), an ethno-religious party, ploughs a lonely furrow. A tough fight is brewing in Bathinda where the party has a lot at stake. Harsimrat Kaur, former Minister in Modi’s cabinet and wife of SAD(B) chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, is seeking a fourth consecutive term. She faces spirited rivals of the AAP and the Congress in the constituency. The SAD(B) has been on a swift downward trajectory in Punjab. Whether it can stall the decline after breaking off from the BJP remains to be seen.

In many ways, Punjab has yet again redefined the matrix in this election. And the results will set the tone for the 2027 Assembly election.

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

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