What Congress's Sweep of Punjab Municipal Polls Tells Us About Impact of Farm Protests

The ruling party benefitted from the anger towards the BJP and its former ally SAD, but all eyes will now be trained on the state's assembly election in 2022.

Chandigarh: Not long ago, the ruling Congress in Punjab was facing a crisis of sorts. Its own MLAs were speaking against chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.

The Punjab hooch tragedy last August that claimed over 120 lives widened the rift within the party after its senior leader and Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa openly blamed Singh for the tragedy.

As one thought the ruling government was losing grip on the ground, rural Punjab suddenly simmered with anger in wake of the BJP-led Centre’s move to pass three agriculture laws in mid-September, and the narrative changed.

In the first major polls to be held in Punjab in the backdrop of the massive farmers’ protests, Congress swept the state’s municipal bodies polls, winning 98 out of 109 municipal councils and nagar panchayats and seven out of eight big municipal corporations that went for polls on February 14.

The areas in Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Moga and Pathankot districts swung in favour of Congress, which hitherto were considered strongholds of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and its former ally, the BJP.

The victory is being considered significant since it came in the final year of the Congress government’s five-year tenure before the state elects a new assembly. More than 39 lakh voters, almost 20% of the assembly voters’ strength, voted in these local elections.

The state will go for fresh polls early next year, along with UP, where too farmers’ protests have grown in scale and size – especially in the western part of the state.

Congress candidates celebrate their victory in Punjab’s local elections. Photo: PTI

More to this than meets the eye

So how did the Congress pull off a massive victory in the municipal polls when it was seemingly on the verge of a crisis barely months ago?

While opposition parties, including the BJP – which lost miserably in these polls, alleged that the state machinery under the ruling Congress did not hold the elections in a free and fair manner, there is more to this than meets the eyes.

A major section of political experts believed the Congress gained from the tactical support it gave to the protestors, whether it was in terms of bringing state Bills to counter the Central laws or announcing compensation and jobs to the next to kin of those who died during the protests.

The failure of the Centre or the BJP government in Haryana to even acknowledge farmers’ deaths only made the Congress’s position stronger.

Also Read: Farmers’ Protest: The Haryana Municipal Poll Verdict Sends a Clear Message to the BJP

Mohammed Khalid, professor of political science at Panjab University in Chandigarh, said that the Congress won more on “negative votes” than “positive votes” for its performance. He said the farmers’ issue had taken centre stage.

He said the opposition in Punjab was already weak before these polls. Khalid said there has been visible anger against the Punjab unit of the BJP. This was not only from the farmers but also from its traditional vote base of arhtiyas (traders or the business class), who were miffed with the party either because of the laws’ direct engagement with agricultural trade or because they suffered business losses due to the protests.

The Akalis and the BJP fought the elections separately, resulting in a split of their traditional vote base in cities and semi-urban areas that went for municipal polls.

“As the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) still lacked a strong organisational structure and was still not a serious player, what options voters had then,” said Khalid.

He said sometimes, the factor called ‘there is no alternative’ plays an important role in elections. “This, I believed, was at play in the opposition’s massive defeat and ‘more than expected’ win for the Congress in the municipal polls,” he added.

Haryana farmers welcome farmers of Punjab moving towards Delhi to take part in the January 26 tractor rally. Photo: PTI

But Parmod Kumar, director at the Institute for Development and Communication, believed one should not read much into these polls, which are mostly state-controlled and voters still depend upon state grants for their works.

“Rewind to the 2015 municipal polls and the then ruling SAD-BJP government registered a massive victory in the municipal polls. But a year later, they faced a miserable defeat in the assembly polls,” he said.

But Parmod agreed that these elections were “unusual” in the way that the BJP was found to be on the wrong side of the development paradigm in Punjab in the wake of the farm issues.

“I say this because not only farmers but arthiyas, traders or shopkeepers were also miffed with the party. That is why it could not find enough candidates for these municipal polls. Even those who fought, over 90% of them could not canvass since they faced boycotts,” he said.

Parmod said unlike in other states, the rural-urban divide is not very sharp in Punjab. “In cities or small towns (that went for municipal polls) you have a mixed population. In every mohalla, there is a peasant’s house as well as that of a trader’s. So the situation was very much unusual for BJP,” he said.

But BJP state president Ashwani Sharma does not believe so.

He told The Wire that the ruling Congress created such a negative atmosphere that it made it almost impossible for BJP candidates, to file their nomination and then canvass on the ground.

“The result would have been entirely different if we were allowed to campaign on the ground. But the Congress, in the garb of farm issues, hijacked the elections and did not let our candidates go out freely. Now they claim that it is a mandate against farm laws. How can it be when the municipal elections are fought on roads and drains,” he said.

Leader of opposition and AAP member Harpal Singh Cheema too joined the BJP in saying that the Congress did not win but ‘looted’ the election. The SAD’s Daljit Cheema too charged the Congress with changing the voters’ list at the last moment and misusing state machinery.

Ashutosh Kumar, professor of Indian politics at Panjab University, is of the view that the party in power always has an advantage in municipal polls. “But no doubt, the Congress has obviously gained from the predicament of its adversaries,” he said.

The results show that the SAD lost its traditional areas, which means it has not been able to recover from its recent setbacks. Also, the SAD breaking up with the BJP over the farm laws and the party coming out belatedly in support of the farmers did not help it either, said Ashutosh.

In the final count, the Congress won 1,199 of the 1,815 wards (municipal councils and nagar panchayats) and 281 of the 350 municipal corporation seats. The SAD got 289 and 33 seats, with the BJP being confined to just 38 and 20 seats, and the AAP at 57 and 9. The remaining seats largely went to independent candidates and Left-aligned political parties.

Also Read: With Growing Trust Deficit for Modi Govt, Will Opposition Gain From the Kisan Mahapanchayat Model?

Will the latest trends hold till 2022 polls?

During Wednesday’s briefing, Punjab Congress state president Sunil Jhakhar used the municipal poll victory to launch the ‘Captain for 2022’ campaign, making it almost clear that Singh will again be in the leadership role for next election, even though he had announced his intention to hang up his boots after the 2017 polls.

Singh, in a statement, boldly said the drubbing that the SAD, BJP and AAP have received in these civic polls is just the tip of the iceberg. All three are set to be “wiped out” of Punjab’s political arena in next year’s polls and subsequently from the nation’s political landscape in the months ahead, he claimed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal. Photo: PTI/Files

But questions remain if the farm agitation can continue for much longer to benefit the Congress and create further political adversaries for the mighty BJP, not only in Punjab but also in UP, where the stakes for the saffron party are much higher.

Parmod Kumar said that regardless of these developments, the five-year performance of the ruling government can’t be ignored whenever fresh polls are announced in Punjab.

As far as the farmers’ protest and its electoral impact is concerned, Parmod said, “I think politically this movement is very important. But it does not have enough electoral arithmetic on its side. Only 20% of the state’s 13 lakh cultivators are protesting in Delhi. A huge chunk of Dalit and Hindu population of the state are not part of it.”

He said, “My thesis is always that in Punjab, Hindu and Dalits decide who their Jat chief minister is. In the last 11 state elections, Jats won not more than 50 assembly seats in the 117 member house. The remaining 67 seats were divided between Hindus and Dalits across all parties. A Jat is always the chief minister because of their hegemony and control over the power corridors.”

But senior journalist Hamir Singh is of the view that the upcoming assembly polls in Punjab can’t be seen through the lens of the same old caste factor or traditional poll arithmetic, especially when the farmers’ protest has weaved new social coalitions.

He said the protest might have started by farmers, but it has been largely turning into an anti-corporate movement, thereby touching all deprived sections of the society including farmers, Dalits or small traders.

He said this is why the protest had an impact during municipal elections, even though they were confined to urban cities and towns.

If it was not the case, what possible reasons could the BJP have behind losing mayoral seats in major corporations in Haryana despite the party being in power. Now in Punjab, similar trends have emerged, wherein the ruling Congress got a major boost while the BJP was routed and other parties could not position themselves in favour of the issue, said Hamir Singh.

He said, “If you see, a section of Dalit workers are already participating in the farmers’ protest. Their number will definitely go up in future and will then end up creating a common ground for different castes and classes.”

He said the kisan mahapanchayats are already mobilising different communities in Haryana, Punjab and UP. “That is the reason there is now pressure within the BJP and the RSS to end the impasse with the farmers at the earliest, since the protest is mobilising people in places like UP, Bihar and MP, where the saffron party’s stakes are much higher,” he said.

Farmers during ‘Kisan Mahapanchayat’ against the new farm laws, in Jind, Haryana. Photo: PTI

Hamir Singh said that is why the Congress may probably not want the farmers’ protest to end any time soon, at least until the state elections in Punjab and UP early next year, because it has been crucial in building anti-BJP sentiments, especially after the protest went international.

While the Congress is upbeat, how other political parties, especially the SAD, win back its core peasantry vote bank that is mainly at the forefront of the farm movement, will be interesting to watch.

And where does AAP find itself when its detractors say it failed to cultivate strong leadership and build an organised grassroots structure.

Author and journalist Jagtar Singh said that since the farmers’ protest will emerge as a key issue in the coming polls, the opposition parties must work harder to stay relevant.

He said the SAD must start with a simple acknowledgement to their core base that they misread the farm Bills in the first place. Then it must start programmes to reconnect with the grossroots level, which has always been its main strength, he said.

Since forging ties with the BJP once again looks difficult, the SAD must start cultivating Dalit and Hindu leadership within the party to target voters in urban areas if it wants to stay relevant in the next polls.

In the 2012 assembly polls, SAD fielded as many as 11 Hindu candidates and 10 of them ended up winning it. So they have to do similar experiments to expand the party’s vote base, said Jagtar Singh.