The Tribune - Spectrum

, February 10, 2002
Lead Article

Punjab Poll: The Plot Thickens --- Photos:Karam Singh and Pankaj Sharma

Election-2002 is as prestigious for the Akalis and the Congress as it is a litmus test for the Punjab voters. If political stakes are high for the parties, the ability of the Punjabis in choosing the right representatives is also on trial. There is no discernible ‘wave’ in anybody’s favour and the voters are weighing their options closely. What will the result be like, wonders PPS Gill

PUNJAB is in an election swirl. Caught up in the political vortex are 917 contestants and 1.58 crore constituents. And three days from today, February 13, the electors will press the buttons of Electronic Voting Machines to constitute the 117-member Vidhan Sabha.

Ironically enough, though the forthcoming polls have been dubbed as the most ''normal elections'' in the recent past, they can easily be termed as the most ''abnormal elections'' in normal times. This is because of the factors at play and the high political stakes involved.

Unlike the previous battles, there are no ‘burning’ issues that stand out. The elections are sans a ‘wave’ in favour of any party. The past elections, since the reorganization of Punjab in 1966, have been won and lost on some template. There is none this time.


Bibi Jagir Kaur
Bibi Jagir Kaur

Rajinder Kaur Bhattal
Rajinder Kaur Bhattal

Sukhbir Badal
Sukhbir Badal

The only discernible factors at play are the "performance'' of the incumbent coalition—Akalis-BJP—and ''anti-incumbency and corruption'' charges against it by the Congress-CPI. The much talked about ''third front'' that the Panthic Morcha promised to stitch together by threading a conglomeration of heterogenous breakaway factions of the parent Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is in shreds.The posturing of this patch-work quilt has already come unstuck. The irony is that even on Tohra-turf (Gurcharan Singh Tohra has been a stormy petrel of the Akali politics, in wilderness since 1998), the Morcha does not pose any credible threat to the ruling Akali Dal and its ‘little brother,’ the BJP. Not even in eastern Malwa districts of Patiala, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ropar and parts of Ludhiana.

The BSP, as is now well understood, has always been high on rhetoric and low on performance and credibility. Its presence is likely to benefit the ruling Akalis more. One can discount it as a challenge to the Congress, even in Doaba, considered to be Congress citadel, where the BSP will only be slashing the victory margins of the Congress contestants. Also, the BSP is badly fractured in Punjab with four distinct factions. Its supremo, Kanshi Ram, has lost much of his following in the state.

It will be not be wrong to say that the BJP, the CPI and CPM are marginal political players in Punjab politics. The BJP knows its limitations as do the two Communists outfits. It remains to be seen how far the National leadership's efforts last week will swing the Hindu urban voters in favour of the party's 23 candidates pulling them out of the political 'black-hole'.

Election-2002 is as prestigious for the Akalis and Congress as it is a litmus test for the Punjab electors. If political stakes are high, so is the credibility and ability of the Punjabis in deciding to chose the right representatives. This is important and imperative because the state is faced with crises —political, administrative, financial, socio-economic, etc.

Punjab today needs a political executive that has the will, determination and sincerity to pull the state out of a quagmire of deep-rooted crises of conscience and to build bridges of confidence between the government and the people in tune with the international geo-political and economic situations. It is not rhetoric, populist sops or sloganeering that Punjab needs. Punjab only needs good governance to again occupy the Number One position from where it fell because of weak politicians and wily bureaucrats. If people are skeptical about what the politicians promise and bureaucrats commit, they right in holding that view.

As one scans the Punjab pollscape, one observes that, mercifully, there are no ''emotive'' issues (Anandpur Sahib Resolution, Bluestar, terrorism, anti-Sikh riots, etc.) that held sway during the previous elections. For the people, the real issue is ''bread and butter'' and ''good quality of life.'' It is not who fathered terrorism and why. It is not if a Commission to probe that is needed. It is not transfer of Chandigarh and Punjabi -speaking areas. It is not even SYL.

The people know that there is no immediate threat from the SYL from being constructed as there is no finality to the Supreme Court directive to Punjab. More over, this emotional quotient has been buried in deep waters for the past 18 years!

In Sikh or Akali politics, religion is an inextricable part. This time the ''Panth is not in peril,'' hence there has been no occasion for the Sikh clergy to chip-in and make emotional appeals for unity.

It is in Punjab's interest that political scalp is not turned inside the old wounds causing pain to the sensibilities of the principle communities and vitiating the atmosphere. This is one point on which both Parkash Singh Badal and Capt. Amarinder Singh agree. One wishes the two would also prepare a joint road-map for resuscitating Punjab and follow that blue-print, irrespective of who wins and forms the government.

There has been much media-hype on the outcome of the polls. The campaign has been aggressive. True, some ''old issues'' lent a certain amount of shrillness to the campaigns. The peoples' perception on governance or the lack of it, or giving a second-term to the Akalis (BJP) occupies peoples’ attention across the three regions— Majha, Doaba and Malwa. But a closer examination reveals that these three regions are unlikely to give the expected response to political parties.

The common perception is that Doaba is Congress’ stronghold as Malwa is of the Akalis. Majha is where the real competition lies. In fact, more than anything else, the present election scene is headed for a direct fight between the Congress and the Akalis. For both, it is a battle for political survival. Therefore, within the three regions the results would vary from constituency to constituency.

There is a perception that whosoever takes the major portion of seats in Malwa will be closer to forming the government. Malwa has 65 seats spread across 11 out of the 17 Punjab districts. It is considered the backwaters of Punjab, but, politically, Malwais are forward-looking.The relationship between the farmers and the ahrtiays in Malwa is symbiotic. They depend on each other fo survival. They are also conscious that the Akalis are the best friends of farmers when it comes to protecting the interests of the sons of the soil.

How will Malwa respond this time? It had, in 1997, returned 44 Akalis, who had contested 58 seats. It backed just nine Congress candidates out of the 56 who were in the fray. It gave all six seats that BJP contested, thanks to the backing of the Akalis.

Take a look at Doaba. It has 25 seats. It returned a record 13 Akalis out of the 18 who contested in 1997. It returned just 5 Congressmen against the 25 who had tested the electoral water that year. The BJP won five out of eight seats it had contested.

In Majha it was a clean sweep for the Akalis. They won all the 18 seats they contested out of total of 27. The Congress could not open its account. The BJP managed to win seven out of its eight seats. Much has changed in the past five years, including voters' response and candidates' postures.

There is no denying that the Congress was riding high on the crest of a ''corruption and anti-incumbency'' wave some time back. However, as the campaign progressed even Congress leaders candidly admitted that the battle had become tougher than they had initially anticipated. Many contests are headed for a photo-finish.

What have added to woes of the Akalis and the Congress are the presence of 416 Independents and their own ''rebel'' candidates. Though both sides have ''expelled'' rebels from the primary membership of their respective parties, they continue to be an headache for the official nominees In the present line-up, both the Akalis and the Congress have at least a dozen such ''rebels.''

Even if the dissidence within the Congress is more pronounced than in the Akali fold, the negative effect will be there. But there is one basic difference in the dissents and horizontal and vertical divisions that the Akalis and Congress face. Though, the two are in a neck-and-neck race, the cleavage amongst the Akalis is localised. It is confined to circles and blocks and districts among jathedars, who owe allegiance to individual leaders. And despite inter and intra contradictions, the Akalis and the BJP project Parkash Singh Badal as their leader.

This is not so in the Congress. There remains more than one contender for the Chief Minister's 'gaddi'. Thus, Capt. Amarinder Singh has competitors in Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Harcharan Singh Brar. The latter has kept a low profile since the 1997 elections when he fell ''sick'' and was admitted to the AIIMS in the midst of the electoral battle.

This angle to the present election has been mentioned in some detail because the Congress, a late starter in launching its campaign, is now being put through its paces. The Congress had not taken into account the fact that despite all its propaganda against the ruling party and the targeting of an individual family in particular, the Akalis do have a clout in the field. The immediate ''achievements'' of the Akalis are acknowledged, albeit grudgingly.Procurement is one such "achievement."

The Akalis have been quick to cash on the ethos of agricultural economy. They have been repeatedly telling farmers that the days when hallmark of agriculture was higher production and productivity are gone. The need today was of agri-business and marketing, coupled with agro-processing and a shift away from wheat-paddy rotation and focusing on cash crops. They have been promising crop insurance, crop loans and waivers, higher technological inputs and investments through bio-technology etc.

In the urban segments, the Congress and BJP have a common vote bank. They will again have to depend upon party workers to mobilise electors on the D-Day. The BJP has banked upon its national leaders to assuages the voters’ initial anger against the party and the performance of its ministers. However, it is still uncertain about how much support will it get at the hustings.

Unfortunately for the Congress, there is no other issue except ''Badal hatao, Punjab bachao''. On the other hand, it is, perhaps, for the first time that a ruling out-fit is out seeking votes on the strength of its ''performamce.'' The Congress failed to do so in 1997, though, during its five-years period it had virtually a free run. It had won just 14 seats out of the 105 on which it had put up its candidates.

Interestingly, if the Akalis hammered the Congress in 1997 as a ''Cash and Carry'' party, the Congress repaying it in the same coin in 2002. The latter launched an advertisement blitz pointing accusing fingers at the Akali leadership. Given the high drama, it is widely believed the forthcoming election will be one of the costliest seen in Punjab’s history. Liquid cash and liquor are likely to play a defining role.

Punjabis are known to log a higher voting percentage than the national average in all elections. They are also known to be decisive. More often than not, they invariably go with the government at the Centre because ''political stability'' is important to them for securing development schemes and money. Punjab knows this better than any other constituent of the NDA and so do the people.

In sum, the urban voter is silent keeping the candidates on tenterhooks. The Dalit voter is leaning towards the Congress. In the rural segments, the peasantry is still enamoured with the Akalis. The outcome, therefore, will depend on how enthused the workers of the two parties are on February 13 and how many commited voters they manage to bring to the polling booths. It is a tough game and the outcome will be awaited with bated breath.

Parkash Singh Badal Capt. Amarinder Singh

Parkash Singh Badal was born in Abul Khurana village in Faridkot district on December 8, 1927. He is a graduate from Forman's Christian College, Lahore.

He entered politics in 1947. He was first elected to the Vidhan Sabha in 1957. He has never looked back and has been a Minister even at the Centre, besides once in Punjab. He has also been the leader of the Opposition in the House.

He is courteous, polite, humble and secretive. He trusts himself alone. A common perception about him is that had he acted more firmly while dealing with the administration or had been able to check-mate the caucus around him, Punjab would have gained much. He never talks about his strengths and weaknesses. He draws sustenance from the people whose prosperity and state's development is his forte He is articulate with the common man and uses his idiom and expression.

He has spent long years—17—in jail, fighting for Punjab's cause. Today, he commands complete control over the political and religious wings of the Akalis. Elections are his first love, so is collecting artifacts when visiting foreign lands.

He has become the Chief Minister for the third time. The first was in 1970, the second in 1977 and then in 1997. Lambi has been his home constituency.

He is a votary of politics of consensus, conciliation and co-operation. He neither subscribes to politics of confrontation nor does he stoops low to hit his opponents below the belt. He decries politics where criticisms is done for the sake of criticism.

He is an indefatigable campaigner.

Capt. Amarinder Singh, was born on March 11, 1942, in a royal family. He is a graduate and an alumni of the National Defence Academy Khargvasla, Pune.

He is a gentleman-politician trying to fit into the loud political culture of the Congress. His main profession has been agriculture and business. He has been a Member of Parliament as also a Minister in Punjab when Mr Surjit Singh Barnala was the Chief Minister.

He had quit the Congress in the wake of the Operation Bluestar in 1984 and had joined the Akali Dal. He returned to the party in 1997 and has been heading the Punjab Congress since July 1998. In between, he had formed a separate Shiromani Akali Dal (Panthic) and contested the 1992 polls when SAD had boycotted the elections. He became a member of Vidhan Sabha having won from Talwandi Sabo in 1985 and from Samana in 1992.

He is an author besides being an environmentalist. Ever since he assumed office as PPCCPresident, he has been engaged in a running battle with party colleagues like Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Jagmeet Singh Brar, who never accepted him in that position. The present election is as much an issue of prestige for the Congress as it is personally for Capt. Amarinder Singh, who has taken a strident stance in leading the party campaign.

Despite the image of being a ''Maharaja'', as he is fondly called by his supporters, Capt. Amarinder Singh tries hard to be one with the common man and Congress workers. He knows the political cultures of both parties, his own and the Akalis.Will he be different, if voted to power?.


Statistically speaking

Regions and districts:

Malwa (11 districts): Ropar, Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala,

Sangrur, Moga, Faridkot, Muktsar, Ferozepur, Bathinda, Mansa.

Number of constituencies: 65

Doaba (4 districts): Nawanshehar, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar,Kapurthala.

Number of constituencies: 25


Majha(2 districts): Gurdaspur, Amritsar

Number of constituencies: 27


Total constituencies: 117—General 88, Scheduled Castes 29.

(Due to death of SAD candidate election has ben 'adjourned' in Malout.)

Number of Candidates: 917

Number of women candidates: 69

Number of Independents and others: 416

Number of electors: General—1,58,18,105

Service— 12,744

Total— 1,58,30,849


Number of polling stations: 18,222.