Going by the early start of pre-election planning and the anti-incumbency mood, the 2017 assembly poll may end up being the costliest Punjab has ever experienced.
Exactly one year before Punjab goes to the polls, political managers are gearing up to use their skills to market their candidates to a populace who are now fed up from the choice they made nine years ago. The border state is already in election mode, dictated by the mood of the people that was shaped by the events from the last Lok Sabha election when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) emerged as a viable option in a political scene that has traditionally been characterised by bipolarity.
The anti-incumbency mood that was triggered in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, of which Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was a victim by failing to win in Amritsar, has virtually turned into a tsunami against the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government that has ruled the state since 2007.
In the run up to the general election, the people of Amritsar were vocal about rebuffing the Akali Dal-BJP combine. The BJP’s Navjot Singh Sidhu, the sitting MP, had a lot of sympathy but it had become clear that he was going to be replaced mainly due to his strained relations with Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his extended family. Nothing moves in Amritsar without the nod from Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia, the brother-in-law of Deputy Chief Minister and Akali Dal President Sukhbir Singh Badal. But Sukhbir’s other brother-in-law, Food and Supplies Minister Adaish Partap Singh Kairon, who also belongs to the same region has little say in administration.
The Akali Dal, at one point the party of the common people representing mainly rural interests, has been transforming since coming to power, a big reason for its increasing alienation from its traditional vote bank.
Losing its vote bank to AAP
Within months of coming to power in 2007, some Akali Dal leaders turned alchemists and learnt the art of converting sand into gold. By 2012, they had monopolised the sand business, to the extent that a farmer was not allowed to take home a trolley of sand even from his own field. This had a chain effect – the jacked up prices hit the construction even on government projects. People soon turned against the government.
The Akali Dal-BJP administration is now associated by the people with the sand mafia, the drug mafia, the liquor mafia, the transport mafia, the cable mafia and whatever else is wrong in the state. Sukhbir is now working out a strategy to neutralise anti-incumbency by coming out with some major announcement to appease various sections of society. Although he has his own team of managers, Sukhbir’s reputation has been that of a master strategist who crafted victories in in 2007 and 2012. Bathinda was the only constituency where all villages appeared to have boycotted the Akali Dal in the Lok Sabha polls. But Sukhbir scripted a win by sending his wife, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, to the Lok Sabha from there for the second time. However, the AAP is now very strong in Bhatinda.
The other major factors that have added to the pre-poll climate in Punjab are the loss of two successive crops in the cotton belt, leading to an increase in the incidence of farmer and farm-worker suicides, and incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib in the same region. The worst hit are small and marginal farmers andthe government has failed to come to the rescue of the beleaguered people. The disbursal of three lakh rupees compensation announced by the government some months ago is facing bureaucratic hurdles. People want change.
Meanwhile, the AAP’s team has been camping in the state since July 2015. Punjab is being perceived as an easy platform by the party after it won four Lok Sabha seats in the state, although two of these MPs have turned rebels. People, especially in the Malwa belt that used to be the Badal bastion, are now in a mood to give a chance to an outside party, much like was seen in Delhi.The AAP could succeed where leaders like Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Manpreet Singh Badal had failed – a formidable option to challenge the SAD-BJP and Congress. The only problem with the AAP is that it has too many chief ministers in-waiting.
It is the turbulence in the religio-political domain that has added to the wrath of the Sikhs, while the failure of the Badal government to meet the people’s expectations and open loot has angered the populace in general. Sukhbir tried to replicate the corrupted CPI(M) model that proved to be that party’s undoing in West Bengal, and the results have been disastrous as the Akali Dal leaders at the constituency level have now come to symbolise rank corruption and total degeneration.
It is the concentration of total power, both in the religious and political domain, that is likely to prove to be the undoing of the Badals. Interestingly, the people occupying religious positions at the secondary level in the Golden Temple complex are extremely vocal in criticising the Badals.
Going by the early start of pre-election planning and the anti-incumbency mood, the 2017 assembly poll may end up being the costliest Punjab has ever experienced. After all, political managers do not come free.