Punjab is in for its most fascinating election ever. In the next few weeks, Punjab will go to the elections and elect a new state government. The northern state has occupied India’s news waves for over a year and a half now. The three farm laws which BJP government brought in to liberalise India’s agricultural system saw Punjab’s farmers, along with those from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh setting camp on Delhi’s borders and sitting on a year-long agitation.
This culminated on November 30 last year, when the Prime Minister announced rollback of the laws. The significance of the day was not lost on anybody. PM Modi decided to announce his decision on Gurpurab – a move aimed at mending his government and the BJP’s image in Punjab.
Within a month, Delhi’s borders were cleared. Now, the focus has shifted to Punjab’s assembly elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is headed to Punjab’s Ferozepur on Wednesday to address a public rally. This is the first time since the farmers’ agitation began in 2020 that the Prime Minister is visiting Punjab, and so, the significance of the same is not lost on the BJP. The BJP needs a lifeline in Punjab. Without it, the party stares at a complete rout in the state.
The ‘Gifts’ PM Modi Could Give Punjab
The BJP cannot register a strong performance in Punjab without giving out ‘gifts’ to the state and its people. Fortunately for it, the party happens to be in power at the Centre, which gives it the distinct advantage of making announcements that are simply out of the league of parties like Congress, AAP and the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Big whispers are doing the rounds in Punjab around Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Punjab. PM Modi will not go empty-handed to the state. Chatter suggests that some big bang announcements relating to farmers are in the offing. Furthermore, PM Modi is also expected to go all-out in trying to win the Sikh vote by making announcements on issues held dear by the community. However, the most significant rumour doing the rounds is that PM Modi can even announce a transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab – which has been a key demand of the state’s people for decades now.
Punjab’s Four-Way Fight
Punjab is experiencing an election like never before. It is about to face a four-way fight between the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Shiromani Akali Dal-BSP and BJP-PLC. To top it all, farmer unions of Punjab have launched a new political party led by Balbir Rajewal, called the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha. There are talks that SSM could ally with AAP – in which case Kejriwal’s party might get a good foothold among the state’s farmer voters.
The Aam Aadmi Party is believed to be in a very strong position in Punjab. Support for the party has swollen, and Kejriwal’s frequent visits to the state, complemented with freebie announcements are attracting many Punjabis. On a recent visit to Punjab, I found the Aam Aadmi Party to be the most ‘visible’ on the streets. Based on my limited interactions, support for AAP outweighed any sympathy people had for Congress.
Congress is in a mess. Factionalism will be the death of the party in Punjab. Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is the Punjab Congress Committee president is not shying away from locking horns with chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and his deputies. Despite placing a government of his choosing, Sidhu seems to be perpetually unsatisfied. He is venting his anger out, and the people are being made to witness the grand show of Congress leaders washing their dirty laundry in public.
Charanjit Channi has personally tried to keep away from being involved in any fights within the party. He is a strong candidate on whose back the Congress can fight an election. His belonging to the Scheduled Caste is an added advantage to the party. However, Congress also suffers anti-incumbency. People are not very happy. Congress had won 77 seats out of 117 in 2017. It was a clean sweep.
Punjab’s citizens in any case are known to change governments in short durations. A government that lasts two terms is considered to be a miracle in itself. The Congress and the Akali Dal have had a tacit understanding since the 90s. These two parties were elected to power alternately. It was all convenient for them as long as Captain Amarinder Singh and the Badals were the strongest players in the state.
But that no longer holds. Now, Captain Amarinder Singh cannot win an entire election. He simply does not have the resources to do so, despite allying with the BJP. Also, Captain has himself failed to deliver on most of his 2017 promises, and Punjabis seem to have grown tired of him.
That brings us to the Shiromani Akali Dal. In Punjab, no party can match the manpower and ground force of the Akalis. Also, they are desperate. Winning this election is not a choice for them. It is a necessity. If the Aam Aadmi Party can win the election, and displace the Akali Dal to the third position on the electoral tally yet again – the world will come crashing down for the Badals.
SAD is putting in all that they have to win this election. They won a mere 15 seats in 2017 out of the 95 they contested. For a party of Akali Dal’s stature – that was a rout, and a similar performance will be the end of the party in Punjab for the foreseeable future.
The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha is a new and untested player, and it has significant manpower. It might prove to be a dud, or it might prove to be a blockbuster hit in Punjab. This brings me to another important point. This Punjab election is that of uncertainties. Anything can happen to anybody, and that includes the BJP.
The BJP and its Continued Fight in Punjab
The BJP is not giving up on Punjab. It is continuing to fight. Now that it has Captain Amarinder Singh and a splinter faction of the Akali Dal with it – the BJP is hoping to upset many political equations in the state, if not win Punjab in totality.
There are five major political players in Punjab this election season. By all estimates, that is a sure-shot way of ensuring a hung assembly. Here’s where the fun begins. In case a hung assembly does indeed emerge in Punjab – there is a high probability that the BJP-PLC combine will enter a post-poll alliance with the Akali Dal. The BJP is known to be keeping an open mind for such an alliance, and SAD, on its part, is just too desperate to get back to power to let any past differences ruin such an understanding.
Can the Akali Dal and Congress come together in case of a hung assembly? Highly unlikely. Navjot Singh Sidhu hates the Badals. He will upend the Congress organisation in Punjab from within if such an alliance is worked out with the Akali Dal.
In a closely-contested four-way fight such as the one which is about to play out in Punjab, the division of votes will be massive. If the farmers’ party decides to fight the polls alone, it might end up eating major chunks of Congress and Akali votes. The Aam Aadmi Party and BJP-PLC combine can emerge as the biggest gainers of such vote-cutting.
There is still time for the polls to kick in. If the BJP wants to make a dent in Punjab this time, the election needs to be fought not in the state itself, but Delhi. The Modi government can make some very big announcements for Punjab. It can try winning over Sikhs involved in business activities and those in urban centres of Punjab. Separately, it must consolidate its support among Hindus. If Hindus in Punjab feel the BJP is not interested in putting up a fight, they will vote for Congress without blinking an eye and without feeling guilty about it.
So, the onus is really on the BJP to use its advantage of being in the Centre to the fullest and wooing Punjab with gifts no other party can give it.
All in all, Punjab this time, is open for all. Anyone can win it. Entire dynasties and hegemonies can be destroyed, and new equations can be built. A lot, however, depends on the BJP dealing with the Punjab question from now, until the day people cast their votes.