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Posted at: Jan 11, 2017, 12:53 AM; last updated: Jan 11, 2017, 12:53 AM (IST)

The Punjab poll vault

Erosion of ideological support base and leadership deficit are evident
The Punjab poll vault
Fight, no cause: No party has a transformational agenda for Punjab.

THE electoral din in Punjab is like the lunatic swing of a pendulum creating a wave of different parties within a short span. It has moved from the Congress sweep at the time of the coronation of Amarinder Singh as PPCC president in December 2015 to the AAP rampage in post-Maghi in January 2015, and now the whisper of the Akali-BJP for a hat. These are often accompanied by claims and counterclaims — the showcasing of performance and the promise of golden performance. It has liberated political parties from consistent political positions and ideological filters. 

Elections are being treated as events to be managed by professional managers without any ideology, commitment to pro-people politics with the sole aim to win. Besides anti-incumbency that provides a safe passage to parties without vision, the winnability criteria allow faceless politicians’ entry into politics and incentivises the hopping from one party to another. As if parties are nothing, but dharamshalas without doors. Political leadership has been discredited, the political parties are poaching celebrities and oiling the slide of leaders from one party to another. Has the political culture and terrain of Punjab become an ideological freak or rudderless? 

The history and culture of Punjab does not support such generalisations. Punjab politics can be located in three evolved axes. One is a stunted identity assertion ranging from religious, communal and secular Punjabi identities. The second is a unique feature of majoritarian arrogance and minority persecution complex in both the main communities — the Hindus and Sikhs. The Sikhs are in a majority in Punjab and minority in India and the Hindus are in a minority in Punjab and a majority in India. The third axis is the intermeshed religio-caste categories as caste is not a category in itself for electoral mobilisations in Punjab.

These axes lay down broad boundaries for the politics to function. Electoral alliances and coalitions have been formed with even diametrically opposed political parties. The Congress and the Akali Dal even merged in 1937, 1948 and 1956. Most Akalis who joined the Congress did not return to the Akali fold. Prominent among them were Pratap Singh Kairon, Swaran Singh, Baldev Singh, Bhai Mohan Singh, Darshan Singh Pheruman, and now Capt Amarinder Singh. The political culture of Punjab is, no doubt, competitive, but not conflictual. Apparently, in the post-Operation Bluestar and ’84 riots period, the Congress faced opposition, but regained power in 2002. The lesson is that voters do not see parties as antagonistic, but competitive. Most people keep both a  blue turban (Akali symbol) and a white turban (Congress symbol) ready to wear as per the need. To hinge the whole campaign that the Congress and the Akalis are mixed up and then expect that people will vote for a third party may not bring corresponding results.

The parties have not only merged with each other, but also formed coalitions. In reorganised Punjab, between 1967-1980, four post-election coalitions were formed between the Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and in the post-terrorism phase the Akali Dal and the BJP formed three pre-election coalitions. In view of the lessons learnt from the decade of terrorism, the parties entered into pre-poll alliances. The Congress apologised for Operation Bluestar and the riots. And the competing parties gave representation to all existing fault lines of religion and caste rather than representing exclusive communal interests. The SAD, which has mainly been a party of Jat Sikh peasants, gave representation to Punjabi Hindus with 11 out of 94 SAD candidates for the 2012 polls. The BJP that largely represents urban Hindu traders gave representation to Sikhs. Similarly, the Congress made inroads into the SAD support base of rural Jat Sikhs by fielding an equal number of rural Jat Sikhs with the SAD. Dalits who constitute around 32 per cent of the population have been represented in all political formations. Of the 1,248 MLAs in the state from 1967 to 2012, Dalits constituted 25.16 per cent, OBCs 8.97 per cent and urban traders (Khatris) 22.12 per cent. But a majority of MLAs (43.74 per cent) came from the rural Jat peasantry.

The ‘uncertain religious allegiance’ of the Dalits and in the absence of caste as a defining parameter for social position, Dalits found representation in all parties. Even the Jat-dominated SAD has had a higher representation of Dalits in six of the 11 Assembly elections and in the remaining five, the Congress had a greater Dalit legislators. It is interesting to note that Dalit legislators have been elected from parties other than the BSP and the Communist parties. Thus Punjab politics has shown signs of blurring religious and caste fault lines. To mobilise people as exclusive categories like Hindu Banias, or Scheduled Castes may not bring the desired results. 

Considering this background, which way will Punjab go? Will it go the AAP way? The AAP won a surprise victory with four seats and a 24 per cent vote share in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It had the advantage of anti-incumbency against the Congress at the Centre and the Akali Dal-BJP in the state. 

However, wherever people could find a formidable alternative to the Akali-BJP alliance, the AAP candidates were not selected. This can be inferred from the results of two constituencies — Bathinda from where Harsimrat Badal defeated Manpreet Badal, and in Amritsar where Amarinder Singh defeated BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley. The two Assembly byelections, in Patiala and Talwandi Sabu, showed that the AAP may not be able to consolidate its support. Unlike the Akali Dal and the Congress, the AAP does not have a historical baggage and therefore does not have a historical advantage either. Another AAP disadvantage is that unlike Delhi, Punjab does not have a large footloose population — as people have their culture and history. The Congress and the Akalis have a regional flavour to their advantage and the AAP is yet to evolve a regional identity of its own. The only advantage it has is an anti-drug and an anti-corruption stance. How far it will help to win is a moot question.

The SAD’s non-Panthic, development and governance reforms plank and the BJP’s emergence at the national level have added a new flavour to the elections. How far will this alliance benefit from this and reversal of moral hegemony with demonetisation which brought Modi, Nitish Kumar and Navin Patnaik on one side and Arvind Kejriwal in the company of Mayawati and Lalu Yadav?

Punjab needs a paradigm shift. In order to outcompete one another, all parties are raining sops rather than initiating a debate on policies to diversify economy, building a consensus against drug abuse, suggesting policies for productive engagement of youth and empowerment of women. This is symptomatic of an erosion of the ideological support base of parties, political leadership deficit and absence of a transformational agenda.

The writer is the Director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh


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