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Chandigarh: With a multi-cornered contest, new alliances and an overwhelmingly large number of candidates in the fray, elections in Punjab have never been fought so intensely as they are now, drawing attention from across the country.
There are plenty of firsts too. From a traditional two-party contest to a triangular fight in the 2017 polls, the upcoming polls on February 14 will be fought by as many as five parties or coalitions.
While the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are likely to go solo, other parties have stitched up unconventional alliances.
Who would have thought that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Amarinder Singh, who guided the Congress to a resounding victory in 2017 polls, would fight the 2022 polls together?
Then, the alliance between Punjab’s Sikh-dominated Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), known for its base among Dalits, was hardly anticipated. The SAD had to look for a new social coalition after it was forced to break ties with the BJP over the farm laws, due to possible opposition from its core vote bank among farm workers.
However, many believe the Congress’s move to elevate Charanjit Singh Channi, who is from the Dalit community, as Punjab’s chief minister may have blunted the SAD’s social engineering plan.
But the Congress has its own struggles, as witnessed by its refusal to declare a chief ministerial candidate.
Will the farmers’ movement play a decisive role?
Different sections of farmer unions – one led by Balbir Singh Rajewal and the other by Gurman Singh Chaduni – have thrown their hat into the political ring, adding a fifth dimension to the keenly contested polls.
Their move, however, appears ill-planned for they are not receiving any support from their peers in the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the umbrella farmers’ body that spearheaded the movement. SKM will decide on January 15 if the unions should be removed from the SKM – which will discredit them.
The Rajewal-led group too has made a misstep by entering into negotiations with AAP over a possible pre-poll alliance but backing it out when negotiations failed.
On the other hand, all political parties, except the BJP, have also been in a tug of war over taking credit for helping farmers during their year-long protest that ended last month with the repeal of the three laws.
Speaking to The Wire, political analyst Ashutosh Kumar says that Punjab is witnessing a strong undercurrent among its voters after the success of the farmers’ movement.
“This has also nurtured a feeling of disenchantment against traditional parties,” he adds.
“These two factors may influence the electorate’s choice, playing a decisive role in the outcome,” believes Kumar.
Voters from the Dalit community will have a big say, Kumar said. “Given that the community accounts for one-third of the total population in Punjab, all political parties, including the BJP, are eying their votes,” he says.
What approaches are political parties taking?
As far as the SAD is concerned, it has been trying to sway Hindu voters while also returning to Sikh panth politics in order to win back its core rural vote base that it lost in the 2017 polls.
Besides, it has said that the deputy CM post will be given to a BSP leader, a move that has been seen as an attempt to woo Dalits. Taking this formula a step forward, a second deputy CM will be an upper caste Hindu, the party said.
On the other hand, AAP, according to an article by Kanwar Sandhu, a former journalist and suspended AAP MLA in the outgoing assembly, is hoping to encash on the disenchantment of voters with the Congress and the SAD, despite the disintegration of its cadres and exit of senior leaders since 2017.
Half of the AAP MLAs who won in 2017 have already left the party for one reason or another. Sandhu is one. AAP is also often accused of its failure to build the party across all regions of Punjab.
According to Sandhu, while in 2017, AAP rode on the Sikh sympathy wave and tried to woo the NRIs, this time, its appeal is more nationalist in character. It has conducted tiranga yatras in several places to consolidate its voter base in cities.
“Also, unlike last time, Arvind Kejriwal has announced that the party will have a CM face this time. Devoid of any other face, two-time Member of Parliament, Bhagwant Mann, remains the frontrunner and perhaps the only worthy ‘face’ left in the party,” Sandhu wrote.
It has been riding on punchline ‘Ik Mauka AAP Nu’ (One chance to AAP) ahead of polls.
‘Too many cooks may spoil the broth for Congress’
Too many cooks spoil the broth. That is the situation that the Congress finds itself in, for there is no clarity on who is running the show: Channi, the CM or Navjot Singh Sidhu, the party’s state president.
Sidhu has been insisting on declaring a CM candidate ahead of the election.
But, the national leadership is keen on fighting the election under ‘collective leadership’, as it fears that naming Sidhu as the chief ministerial candidate may take away the gains the party believed to have made by declaring Channi as Punjab’s first Dalit chief minister.
Sidhu, on the other hand, insists that he has a pro-Punjab agenda and the right intent to implement it while stating that voters trust him.
Although the ruling party is facing anti-incumbency, it believes that the removal of Amarinder Singh could neutralise that factor.
Impact of farmers’ movement on BJP
As far as the BJP is concerned, the farmers’ protest still weighs heavily.
Although it is clear that the party is not facing the kind of resistance seen during the protests, the recent roadblock by farmers during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last week indicates that the farmers’ antipathy towards the saffron party still continues.
Notwithstanding the damage caused by the farmers’ movement, the BJP state leadership is confident that it can strike a chord with voters, especially in Hindu-dominated urban segments.
The party also hopes that the alleged security breach involving Modi will resonate with voters. Towards this end, the BJP has already stepped up its attack against the Congress, accusing it of a conspiracy to “assassinate” Modi and failing to handle law and order in the state.
On the other hand, the party recently inducted several Sikh leaders in order to reach out to the community.
The BJP also hopes that Amarider Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress and a splinter group of the SAD headed by Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa will also aid its chances by winning seats in Sikh-majority constituencies.
It may be recalled that the BJP contested just 23 of the state’s 117 seats in the previous election, when it was in alliance with the SAD. However, this time around, the BJP will contest many more seats as the major partner in the alliance.
Recent incidents a diversion?
That is why Punjab’s chief electoral officer (CEO) S. Karuna Raju has already sought the deployment of 1,050 companies of Central Armed Paramilitary Forces, against the 500 companies deployed last time.
The impact of these events on voter choices is presently unclear, but many in the political circle see it as an attempt to divide Punjabi society along religious and geographical lines.
Ashutosh Kumar, meanwhile, believes these events will not have much impact. “It is not easy to polarise Punjab since it is a close-knit society and has had a composite culture for a long,” he said.
How Punjab pans out geographically
Punjab’s 117 assembly segments, spread over 23 districts, are divided into three regions: Malwa, Doaba and Majha.
Malwa, a southeast territory comprising 15 districts, is the largest region with a total of 69 assembly seats.
It is believed that any party that performs well in Malwa is likely to form the government in Punjab. It was once a stronghold of the SAD before the Congress and then the AAP broke into it.
In 2017, while the SAD was reduced to eight seats, its worst-ever performance in the region, the Congress won as many as 40 seats and 18 seats went to the debuting AAP.
All parties, including the BJP, have been putting maximum effort in this region.
Doaba, an area between the rivers Beas and Sutlej, comprises four districts and 23 assembly constituencies. There is a large Scheduled Caste population in this region that has often swung in favour of Congress.
In 2017, the Congress won 15 seats while the SAD won five and AAP two.
It is in this region that the SAD-BSP alliance hopes to do well, even as the Congress hopes Channi will help them retain this region and even outperform its previous tally.
The third region, Majha, is the border belt of Punjab and seat of Sikhism in Amritsar. It has a total of four districts and 25 seats.
The region has in the past backed Akalis and the Congress, since both parties have important leaders.
Congress’s Navjot Sidhu is also MLA from this region, as is SAD’s Bikram Majithia, who was recently booked in a drugs trafficking case.
The Congress swept the region in 2017, winning all 22 seats.
As far as the BJP is concerned, it won just three assembly segments in 2017 – one each in the three regions.