Win Or Lose, AAP Would Gain In Punjab

Here is the history of elections in Punjab. The ups and downs in the Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal and the failure of the BSP to make a mark are discussed by ‘Peoples Pulse’ in this research piece:

In the aftermath of the partition of India, it was the Congress that was the dominant party in the state as was the case with the rest of India though Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) emerged as an effective party due to the demographic change in the state. After the partition, Sikhs now constituted 35 per cent of the state’s population and as a panthic party SAD received the community support especially among the Jat rural Sikh vote after the elevation of Sant Fateh Singh as the party president. However, it was the Congress that dominated politics in Punjab. Following the reorganisation of the state in 1966 when Sikhs became a majority in the state, it has been either the Congress or the Akali Dal that has formed the state’s governments, either as the single party in power (in the case of the Congress) or as part of a coalition government (in the case of the Akali Dal). The Akali Dal has formed coalitions governments with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) party (Table 1). Since 1997, the BJP as a junior ally of Akali Dal has remained the part of the coalition governments formed in 1997 and then in 2007 and 2012 (Table 2). The two mainstream Left-wing parties, namely CPI and CPI (M), which were once significant enough to have alliances with the Akali Dal (1980) on respectable terms and with the Congress (1997 and 2002) – though as a diminished ally – have become less relevant over the period. The two communist parties have been polling less than two per cent of votes in the last three assembly elections and not having won a single seat since 2002 elections (Table 1 and 2). Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is another political party that has become less relevant in Punjab over time after a promising start.

If there were to be a party in Punjab’s post-militancy period that could have emerged as a relevant, if not a winnable party, it is the BSP. In a state with nearly one-third of its population belonging to the scheduled castes (SCs), the BSP with its social support base among the lower castes especially the SCs, was expected to present the third alternative after its impressive debut in 1992. The founding president of the BSP, Kanshi Ram, was a Punjabi from Ropar. Ram is credited with winning the Lok Sabha seat of Hoshiarpur in 1996, a rare feat for a SC candidate to win from an unreserved seat in India’s electoral democracy. The decline of the party in Punjab has coincided with the ascendance of Mayawati as the party chief in the post-Kanshi Ram period. Under Mayawati, the party concentrated its focus and energy on capturing and retaining political power in Uttar Pradesh. In the process, the party leadership, mainly drawn from Uttar Pradesh, largely neglected Punjab. As a result, the party has floundered in the state, securing less than five percent of the polled votes in the last two assembly elections. Besides, the apathy of party leadership, internal factionalism, allegation of tickets selling and a tacit understanding with the Akali leadership has all had a negative impact on the party’s performance in the state. It is also important to note that the politically marginalized scheduled castes in Punjab are better off socially as well as economically than their counterparts in other Indian states. The green revolution caused an increase in wages in Punjab. The mostly-landless scheduled castes have benefitted significantly from this wage increase. The scheduled castes in Punjab, especially those belonging to the Chamar caste, benefited greatly from social reform movements like Ad-Dharam and Ravidassia movement. One significant reason for the electoral marginalization of scheduled castes in Punjab, as elsewhere in the country, is the presence of hierarchies in the community. These hierarchies lead to factionalism that can cause the various cast-based groups—Chamars, Mazhabis, Balmikis—to have very different opinions on matters and very different methods to mobilize political change. For instance, some of these groups use music to this end. Interestingly, even their music reflects the differences in the means employed by.

The Punjab Peoples Party (PPP), founded in 2010, is another political party that declined after a promising start. Under the charismatic leadership of Manpreet Badal, the PPP secured five percent of the votes cast in the 2012 elections. However, since then the PPP simply withered away. The now defunct party, however, shall be remembered for ensuring the unexpected victory of the incumbent Akali Dal-BJP in 2012 elections as it received crucial anti-incumbency votes that would have gone to the Congress. In the run up to 2017 election also smaller parties came up like Swaraj Party and another party founded by former AAP leader Sucha Singh Chhotepur. However, this time neither these smaller parties nor the Left parties or the radical factions of the Akali Dal like SAD (Amritsar) or Dal Khalsa are likely to play any significant role in the election that has turned out to be a triangular contest involving the Congress, SAD and AAP.

Significance of the 2017 Elections

2017 elections in Punjab received unusual attention due to many factors. First and most important factor was the curiosity about the possibility of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) repeating its impressive performance in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, thus bringing an end to the bipolar party system that has been in place in the state for last five decades with few interruptions. It was also an important election for the Congress as Punjab is the only state where the party suffering from continuing reverses since its debacle in 2014 election, can realistically hope to secure victory. Among the five states that have gone for elections, the party has been facing anti-incumbency in Uttarakhand and in Goa the party is in a bad shape. In Uttar Pradesh the party is a junior partner of the Samajwadi party. However, even if the party manages to be on the winning side, it would be attributed to the success of Akhilesh Yadav led Samajwadi Party as was the case with the party winning seats in Bihar assembly election by virtue of being in grand alliance with the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal. As for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) that has remained in power in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJP) for two consecutive terms, it was not so much about winning the election but not to lose its traditional social support base of rural Jat Sikhs and consequently lose elections badly. The party that is going to gain the most by a victory or even an impressive performance is the AAP as the party government enjoying the constitutional autonomy can succeed in providing effective governance and then present ‘Punjab model’ to other states especially the smaller states like Goa or the states where the Congress is getting weaker like in Gujarat. It is this factor that may be worrying to the BJP which otherwise does not have much at stake, especially given the bitter rivalry between the AAP and BJP in Delhi.

In terms of leadership also it has been an important election for the leadership of the three winnable parties in the state namely the Congress, the AAP and the Akali Dal. Captain Amrinder Singh, the chief campaigner and chief ministerial candidate for the Congress party who like Prakash Singh Badal, the outgoing chief minister has statewide support base, led the party for the third time. Last two elections also he had led the party. The defeat would mean the end of political road for 75 year old leader, who has proclaimed it to be his last election. Another state level leader whose career is going to be defined is Sukhbir Singh Badal, the outgoing deputy chief minister and the SAD President. The unexpected victory of the Akali Dal in 2012 was attributed to the ability of Sukhbir Badal to ‘manage’ the election. If the party manages to win elections once again, then Badal junior would be able to come out as a leader in his own right and not someone who has remained shadowed by his father Prakash Singh Badal despite being in power for more than a decade. Arvind Kejriwal, the face of the AAP campaign in the state in this election would gain in stature nationwide in case of impressive performance of the party. Significantly, it was for the first time in the electoral history of the state that an outsider politician who was neither a Sikh nor a Punjabi speaking could leave such a colossal impact over the politics of the state.

Just another Election

In many ways, 2017 election was just another election for the state of Punjab as it also exhibited the long established trends specific to the state. First, one could refer to the continuing presence of three distinct electoral regions i.e. Malwa, Doaba and Majha. Each of these regions has had its own specific electoral issues and voting pattern. A second continuity discernable in the 2017 election was that the electoral campaign was mostly dominated by the issues related to development and governance—not the ethnic issues of Punjab’s troubled past as was the case before 1997 elections held in Punjabi Suba. Third, on the flip side, competitive populism/patronage based on clientelistic politics rather than programmatic politics has continued with all the parties making tall unrealistic promises in their manifestos and during their campaigns. Fourth, like the earlier elections, 2017 elections also witnessed a very high level of electoral participation at 75 per cent, higher than the national average, as always. Fifth, like in the past elections, the specificity of the three electoral regions was prominently visible as not only in terms of the prominence of electoral issues but also the relative significance of different parties.1Sixth, like in the elections taking place in the state since 1997 assembly elections, ethnic issues did not receive salience during the campaign. The whole campaign was about the promise of development and effective governance as while SAD and BJP claimed to bring about development when in power, Congress and AAP accused the ruling combine of corruption, nepotism and non­performance. Seventh, the electoral politics of the state continued to remain lopsided if viewed in terms of the different parties’ leadership profile. All the prominent leaders leading the campaign and in important positions in their respective party organizations continued to belong to the land-owning and numerically powerful Jat landed peasantry.2 In a state having 31.9 percent of its population belonging to Dalit population, BSP continued to lose its ground even in the Doaba region having constituencies where Dalits even form majority as the party leadership based in Uttar Pradesh continued to neglect Punjab.

Exceptionalism Factor

However, there were also important deviations, turning the 2017 Assembly elections in Punjab into an exceptional election, mainly because the long-standing bipolar electoral system in the state ended in the state. The AAP’s incredible electoral journey had commenced with the 2014 Lok Sabha election when it had surprised everybody by polling 24.4 per cent of the vote and winning four out of 13 constituencies, and finishing third in eight constituencies (34 of the 117 Assembly segments). That performance defied received electoral wisdom, as AAP did not have a recognizable leadership, organization, support base, electoral agenda or the winnablity factor in a state, which has been witness to high level of electoral participation and contestation. Irrespective of the number of the seats the party wins, it has clearly emerged as a game changer by forcing the Congress and Akali Dal to address hitherto ignored but vital issues like drugs, poor plight of farmers and dynastic rule.

Second, in terms of leadership also the election was an aberration as for the first time in Punjabi Suba electoral history, a non-Punjabi speaking Hindu from neighbouring Haryana with which the state has a running feud linked to water and territory emerged as the face of the AAP campaign and seemed to cause scare to stalwarts like Prakash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh, both having a political inning for more than fifty years and enjoying state wide support base across the three electoral regions of the state.

Third, the 2017 election also witnessed the significant shift in the traditional social support base of a panthic party like SAD. The party which always managed to gain decent support of its core social constituency of rural voters, especially the Jat Sikh landed peasantry even when it lost the election, faced an alienated rural constituency on account of repeated crops failures followed by inadequate and erratic compensation, spurious pesticides being distributed by the government, a flawed crop procurement process adopted by government agencies, farmers’ suicides and the issue of minimum support price. Most significantly, the inability of the Akali government to capture the culprits responsible for the desecration of holy Guru Granth Sahib also alienated the devout Sikhs. The attempt to enlist the Dera Sacha Sauda support just before the election might have brought the Dera Premi votes but on the flip side it was also a factor that annoyed the traditional rural panthic constituency of the SAD as the Dera chief is not only charged with serious crimes but also was accused of personating himself as the tenth Sikh Guru.

Fourth, the 2017 election also drew attention due to its innovative electoral strategies adopted by different parties to gain the support. AAP for instance not only came out with different manifestos for different social constituencies but also campaigned door to door and creatively used social media.

Fifth, since 1992, there has been a clear majority in successive assemblies for the party in power— whether it is the Congress in alliance with CPI/CPM or the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine. However, this time there is a distinct possibility of a hung assembly which would throw up interesting scenarios.

Sixth, this election saw the emergence of youth as a new secular ‘voting category’ in the state as it was viewed as having its distinct electoral choice. It was visible in the way different parties made attempt to woo the party during the campaign. As 2012 election had seen larger women participation, there was also an effort on the part of the parties to address the issues that related to the women.

Explaining the Success of AAP

As discussed at the outset, the most significant feature of these elections was the presence of the third alternative before the voters in the form of the AAP. Irrespective of the electoral outcome in the 2017 elections, AAP definitely seems a party, which is going to stay a relevant/effective party in the state. What explains the success of a party that made a debut only two years ago in the state? Arguably, as mentioned above, the AAP success in continuing to remain relevant defies the conventional electoral wisdom, as the party is a new party for state pitted against two well-entrenched parties in a state where region, religion, caste and leadership have played crucial roles in varying manner in determining the electoral outcomes in successive elections. The poll pundits viewed its success in 2014 election in fact as an aberration as the party soon after its impressive debut seemed poised for free-fall. Despite the initial setbacks, the party has suffered in the form of dissidence/expulsion/allegation against the state party unit leaders sent from Delhi, the AAP has continued to have a sizeable electoral presence in the run up to 2017 elections, especially in the important Malwa region that has as many as 69 out of 117 assembly seats. What strengthens the case for AAP is the fact that it polled 24% of the votes in the 2014 elections when it was not considered a winnable party, while this time the party is being talked about as one of the winnable parties. Also the party in the last two years has made inroads in the state under its Punjab Mission Plan, launched two years before the elections and also launched door to door campaign with the help of the volunteers posted in almost all the villages. Arguably, many factors may be mentioned as paving the way for the party’s electoral success, some of them are mentioned here.

The Youth Factor

As mentioned above, the youth of the state emerged as a significant social category and not merely because of the changing demographic profile of the state but also because due to their wider exposure to social and print media seems to have developed its own distinct electoral preferences. The support of the youth for the AAP has been a significant factor that has gone a long way to establish the party in the state right from the beginning. In Punjab, 53 per cent of voters fall in the age group of 18-39. More crucially, out of 1, 99, 63,346 eligible voters, 9, 68,128 fall in the age group of 18-19. Significantly, in a CSDS-NES poll survey held after the 2014 election, 40 per cent of young respondents in the 18-35 age group had reported voting for the AAP. The survey had also revealed that youth credited AAP more than they credited any other party for raising their critical concerns like issues of drugs, mafia style corruption, unemployment, widespread use of coercion by men in power. One possible reason may be that the youth has suffered the most from the agrarian crisis and flight of industries that have led to massive unemployment. In a CSDS-NES poll survey held after the 2014 general election, 40% of respondents in the 18-35 age group reported voting for AAP. The survey also revealed that the youth credited AAP more than any other party for raising issues of their critical concerns i.e. drugs, mafia- style corruption, unemployment, and widespread use of coercion by men in power.

Learning their lessons, the older parties this time took note of the youth as a distinct voting category. Evidence of this was in their manifestos as well as their campaign strategies. The Congress manifesto promises at least one job to every household (55 lakh) in the state, a stipend of Rs 2,500 for the jobless, an end to the drug menace within four weeks of coming to power, and one-lakh taxis/commercial vehicles every year for unemployed youth. The BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in their separate but uncannily similar manifestos also promised 10 lakh jobs over five years, free laptops and free higher education for girls. To address the youth aversion for corruption, SAD even pledged to appoint a Lokayukta if voted to the power for the third time.

AAP, however, managed to trump its rivals by coming out with a separate youth manifesto. The party makes elaborate promises to the youth like 25 lakh new jobs in five years, entrepreneurial/ skill centres, end to favouritism in public employment, improved schooling, special laws to give life-terms for drug traffickers, end to corruption/crony capitalism and appointment of a Jan Lokpal on Delhi model.

Taking a leaf out of AAP book, the campaigns of different parties also showed a sense of urgency to connect to the youth. While all the three parties promised better internet connectivity, the Congress led by promising 50 lakh smart phones to youth who participated in its ‘Captain Smart Connect’ campaign. Captain Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief campaigner and Chief Ministerial candidate also launched ‘Coffee (and not Punjabi Lassi) with Captain’ mainly to connect with the urban youth in small gatherings across the state. The Congress high command’s policy of ‘one family one ticket’ was also aimed at the youth who abhor nepotism and also to negate the charge of nepotism against it by AAP. Sukhbir Badal, the SAD president had launched a ‘Youth for Punjab’ campaign to make them aware of the development work done by the government in the past decade. All the parties used the social media extensively to connect to the tech-savvy youth but here too the AAP had the edge during the 2017 campaign.

The Diaspora

In the 2017 election like in the 2014 election, large Punjabi Diaspora played an important role in influencing the electoral outcome in favour of the AAP. The tragic events that has happened in the past in the state has largely alienated the immigrant Sikh community from the Congress whereas the alleged large-scale corruption in higher places, widespread drug menace in the state and economic deceleration has convinced this influential community to dump the SAD. The 2017 election witnessed the Diaspora like in the past not only funding the AAP campaign but also campaigning for the party effectively. The Diaspora in the state receives wider attention of the youth as they are viewed as icons for the state’s youth who yearn to settle abroad like them by all means, so disenchanted they are from the future of the beleaguered state.

Explaining the Decline of the SAD

2017 election was a crucial election for the SAD as the party was not only fighting against anti­incumbency after remaining in power for two terms and being blamed for the economic crisis being faced by the state but also because the party seemed in danger of losing its traditional support base and suffering an unprecedented loss. What can be possible explanations?

Arguably, the SAD as a party has undergone a critical shift in terms of its organizational, leadership structure. Post-1997 Punjab has witnessed the rise of person-centric leadership within SAD as Badal and his close relatives have exercised control over both party and government, while the other two Sikh institutions namely the SGPC and the Akal Takht have lost their autonomy in relation to the party. In people’s perception, SGPC has become a source of funding for the party, with huge donations coming to gurdwaras under its control while Akal Takht’s moral authority over Sikhs has been badly damaged. Both institutions are now being popularly perceived as instruments of SAD leadership for settling scores with political opponents rather than preserving/protecting the panthic interests. Once a cadre- based and ideologically driven movement party, SAD itself has now been reduced to a ‘family party’, following the tradition of most other state-level parties including the older comparable state parties like National Conferences and Dravida Munnetra Kadgam. Ironically, this way the SAD has also been ‘mainstreamed’ in national politics as an electoral party.

Decline of Ethnic Agenda

Reflecting a major shift in Punjab’s electoral politics, secular core issues of governance and development are now dominant for SAD and other mainstream parties, visible in manifestos and campaign speeches, though not much has happened at ground level. Among the post-Bluestar generation of voters and leadership, there is little memory of the gruesome events in Punjab during militancy. The older leadership realizes that resorting to panthic politics, although core Anandpur Sahib Resolution demands remain unmet, would be suicidal for all stakeholders. At the same time the party has been trying to retain its traditional rural Sikh support base by erecting Sikh memorials and raising panthic issues like separate marriage laws for the Sikhs. Thus, both factors i.e. decline of the SAD in organizational terms and its inability to raise panthic issues has meant that the party is no longer sure of its traditional panthic support base. The party has been looking forward to spread its support base and so it has been seeking support on the basis of the party’s performance. This has not helped the party’s electoral cause as the party has failed to showcase its performance as a ruling party. Rather it has helped the opposition parties like the Congress and the AAP who have taken up the issue of governance deficit in the state. Also both parties have presented themselves as secular parties keeping away from ethnic issues. There has been fallout of the marginality of the ethnic issues as caste factor has come to play an important role. AAP in particular was able to use it to its disadvantage as it mobilised the dalits, especially in the Doaba region with its party symbol that echoed with the Balmiki community and also by issuing a separate manifesto for Dalits.

Weaker Alliance Partner

2017 election also showed the failure of the BJP to gain from its long term alliance with the Akali Dal in place since 1997 election.3 Interestingly, the BJP has always gained from its alliance with a state level party like in case of its alliance with Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka; INLD in Haryana; Biju Janata Dal in Odissa; Shiv Sena in Maharashtra; AGP in Assam; Telugu Desham Party in Andhra Pradesh. In Punjab the BJP has not only become dependent over the SAD to win the seats but has also unable to retain its urban upper caste support base. Under the coalitional arrangement, Punjab’s BJP gets to contest only in 23 out of 117 seats. However, 2017 elections saw it as an ineffective junior ally. BJP has not gained much from this electoral alliance and seems unable to benefit from its traditional urban social constituency of trading and business groups. The BJP state unit, moreover, has been forced to underplay its ideological thrust, potentially further alienating its core supporters, while SAD has largely managed to retain its panthic support base. The state unit since the 2014 victory of the party in Lok Sabha has been clamouring for the breakup but the party high command has been hesitant as it is conscious of the fact that it might help the rival Congress. Moreover, the alliance is mutually helpful to both as they complement each other with their respective distinct rural-urban as well as Hindu-Sikh support base and also the alliance helps both the parties to shed their image of being communal parties. Conscious of a possible future break-up of this alliance, and given SAD’s natural desire to emerge as a single majority party in the state, there have been consistent SAD efforts to expand its support base, especially since Sukhbir Singh Badal’s ascendancy as the president of the party. The 2017 election saw very few rallies by the top BJP leadership including of Modi which was viewed as an admission of the marginality of the party in the state. As a result, the party no longer seemed capable of helping the SAD to a great extent especially with its discredited/ ineffective state level leadership who have failed to deliver despite remaining in ruling alliance for long.

Summing Up

Arguably, the 2017 election was one of the most interesting elections ever to take place in the political history of post-reorganisation Punjab-one that can very well turn out to be a game changer both in terms of the electoral outcome and also in setting the agenda for future governments. For any discernible observer of Punjab politics, it has been the SAD which as a regionalist party in the state for around a century has been able to set the political agenda of Punjab especially after the state’s reorganisation in 1966, whether the party has remained in power or not. However, for any observer of 2017 election, it was clearly the AAP a four year old party having its presence in the state only for two years that clearly emerged as the game-changer by setting the electoral agenda of the state, identifying and defining important issues and providing credible challenge to the established parties of the state. The question that was in the air during the election period was whether a four-year-old party facing the two of the oldest surviving parties in India would be able to bring about a critical shift in the bipolar party system well-established in the state since the 1997 elections. Irrespective of the electoral outcomes, the AAP as a self-proclaimed movement party, committed to clean and principled politics with politically novice but well-meaning candidates has been able to raise hope among the wider electorates in the state who have been disgruntled with the lopsided polity of the state that only allowed them choice between the two parties.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.