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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: May 12, 2019, 7:14 AM; last updated: May 12, 2019, 8:14 AM (IST)

Propaganda war in Punjab

Issues concerning the common man find little mention as parties trade punches over nationalism, sacrilege, ’84 riots. Congress, SAD-BJP combine are locked in a direct fight as AAP engages in a battle for survival

Ruchika M. Khanna in Chandigarh

The General Election 2019 has changed the political spectrum in Punjab. From a state having three principal political parties during the 2014 elections, the contest in Punjab this time is between two parties only - the Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance, as fortunes of the Aam Aadmi Party are on the wane. Who emerges as the eventual winner will be known after results are declared on May 23. 

The fact that the presidents of all three political parties- the Congress (Sunil Jakhar); the Shiromani Akali Dal (Sukhbir Singh Badal) and the Aam Aadmi Party (Bhagwant Mann) — are in the poll fray substantiates how important this election is for Punjab. Top national leaders from all parties are going to campaign for their candidates in the state this week as the final phase of campaigning ends on May 17. 

What will results mean for the Congress

If the fortune doesn't favour the Congress, it is going to affect the position of Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, as it was his will that prevailed in the selection of candidates for the Congress ticket and in the setting the political agenda for the 13 Lok Sabha seats of Punjab. An impressive win would reaffirm his stature and would be a positive referendum for his two-year tenure. In 2014 LS poll, the Congress had won just three of the 13 seats. However, in the 2017 Assembly elections, the tide had turned in party's favour as it stormed to power winning 77 of 117 seats. 

For these elections, Amarinder has launched a “Mission 13” campaign to win all 13 seats. However, anti-incumbency and divisions within the party are visible in some constituencies. Still, the factors that go in the party's favour are that the AAP has been decimated and people do not yet seem in mood to forgive the Akali-BJP combine over the “shoddy probe of sacrilege incidents of 2015”. Also, the party has fulfilled two of its main fulfilled poll promises — cheap power to industry and implementing the crop-loan waiver scheme — though not to the extent what was promised. This is getting the government a pat on its back, and giving it an edge over its rivals. 

Akalis’ future at stake

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which is contesting on 10 seats, has played its biggest gamble in this election. If the SAD-BJP combine were to lose either of the Bathinda or Ferozepur seats where the party's first couple (Sukhbir Singh Badal and Harsimrat Kaur Badal) is contesting, it would further decimate the already struggling party. A resurrection may not be possible after that. By winning just two seats of Bathinda (Harsimrat) and Ferozepur (Sukhbir), the party could win the battle of perception and should be back in form for the assembly polls in 2022. If it is able to get more than these two seats (because of anti incumbency against the Congress), it would be indication enough that the worst period for the party is over. 

BJP emerging out of Akalis' shadow 

Till now, there has been a perception that Punjab is not a priority for the BJP, where the saffron party is contesting just three seats — Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur. However, in the 2017 state Assembly polls as well as in these polls, the BJP has been actively involved in all aspects of the elections — strategising, campaigning or mobilising support. The very fact that the party has fielded a sitting minister (Hardeep Singh Puri from Amritsar) and a Bollywood star (Sunny Deol from Gurdaspur) speaks of the party's growing interest in Punjab. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has also been strengthened across Punjab in the past couple of years. It was the RSS cadre that predicted the voters' lack of faith in the Akali-BJP alliance in 2017 and the ensuing debacle in the Assembly polls. This time, too, the cadre is working diligently to drum up support for its three candidates as well as for the Akali candidates, especially in Hindu-dominated and urban industrial areas where Prime Minister Modi enjoys a solid following. 

Third front fails to pick up 

Even the third front — the Punjab Democratic Alliance, led by Sukhpal Singh Khaira,  consisting of several splinter groups, including the Bahujan Samaj Party and Left parties, seems to be lagging behind. The front could not cash in on the initial hype created after the breakaway Akali Dal group led by MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura joined it. Another front constituent, the Akali Dal Taksali went its own way and ended up contesting just one seat of Anandpur Sahib. If Khaira and Baldev Singh (contesting from Bathinda and Faridkot seats, respectively), were to lose in these polls, they could lose their Vidhan Sabha membership for contesting on another party's, Punjab Ekta Party (PEP) symbol. Byelections in the Bholath and Jaiton Assembly segments that they represent would also be imminent. 

Political lines get blurred

Interestingly, a major trend this time has been the fielding of sitting MLAs by all political parties. Till last elections, there were separate candidates contesting the LS and state Assembly polls. But like elsewhere, the lines are getting blurred here, too. The Congress has fielded two sitting MLAs, Dr Raj Kumar Chabbewal and Amrinder Singh Raja Warring. SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal and Parminder Dhindsa, too, have thrown their hat in the ring; while the BJP's Som Parkash is contesting from Hoshiarpur. Two of PEP's MLAs, Sukhpal Singh Khaira and Master Baldev Singh are also in the arena as is AAP's Talwandi Sabo MLA Baljinder Kaur and Lok Insaf Party leader Simarjit Singh Bains. If any of these MLAs win, a byelection would be imminent in their constituency. 

Sacrilege, ’84 riots and nationalism main issues 

The political discourse for this election is no longer development or serious issues like drug menace or sand mafia that became the bane of the then SAD-BJP government in the 2014 General Election, or the agrarian crisis and the large-scale unemployment that dominated the 2017 Vidhan Sabha election. The drug menace has still not been eradicated and the illegal sand mining under political patronage is still on but suddenly, the ghost of 1984 anti Sikh riots has been pulled out and the SAD-BJP leaders are gunning for the Congress. Speeches are becoming acerbic and level of debate is falling. 

The spin doctors in the Congress camp have completely steered the agenda towards the sacrilege issue, while those in the SAD-BJP are harping on nationalism. No one is talking about actual issues being faced by the people like the indebted farmers who continue to take their own lives because of economic distress; the large-scale unemployment and under employment in the state; the desperate measures by the youth to fly to greener pastures; or the ghost of demonetisation that continues to haunt the micro, small and medium industry as well as labourers who were laid off after the economy came to a standstill. No wonder, the electorate is put off and is keeping away from the rallies and election meetings. The voters are not saying much this time but are in a mood to let their votes speak for them. They are very much aware of the problems facing them thanks to the social media, but are unwilling to commit to anyone, giving jitters to the parties and candidates in fray. 

The good and the bad  

This new awakening among the electorate is the good thing about this election. This election is also about the people's resurgence, but in a more evolved and non-violent way, unlike the violent resurgence of the 1980s. Gone are the days when voters were just herded to rallies and made to swear their allegiance to a particular political party. In the changed order of Punjab politics, the voters are asking questions, seeking answers, and demanding accountability from their representatives. And the politicians are scurrying for cover... not knowing how to react. 

The bad thing is that the real issues are getting buried under the din of propaganda — be it religious or sacrilegious. It seems the political parties have turned a deaf ear to their voters' genuine problems. They are drumming up issues that they believe will garner them the votes. No wonder, there is lack of enthusiasm among voters this time round. Most candidates are organising small election meetings, rather than big rallies. This is as much to save expenses and escape the watchful eye of the Election Commission, as also because of the lack of interest shown by the voters. 

Whatever the governing and the governed may be doing or feeling, the final results on May 23 will bare all. 

Split in AAP costs the party dear 

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), riddled with rebellion and defections, is bound to lose its status as the principal opposition party to the SAD-BJP alliance. Since the 2014 LS poll when it won four Lok Sabha seats, it has been on a slide. In the 2017 Assembly polls, too, the party had won just 20 seats, despite there being a lot of hullabaloo around the new party. As of now, other than state chief Bhagwant Mann, who is seeking a re-election from Sangrur, most other candidates seem lagging behind. It was believed after the party's less than expected show in 2017, it would learn from its “mistakes” and emerge as a credible opposition. But it took less than a year for a rebellion to rise in the party that ultimately led to its split. The breakaway group formed another party, the Punjab Ekta Party. Besides this group, its two other MLAs (Nazar Singh Manshahia and Amarjit Singh Sandoa) defected to the Congress. Thus the party stands little chance of repeating its 2014 performance in Punjab. This, despite the fact, that there is clearly enough space and a strong support base among voters against the two traditional political parties


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