It is not just the landslide victory of the Congress but also the colossal defeat of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP that may be considered as one of the most significant features of this election in Punjab. The SAD was supposed to lose as it was in power for two consecutive terms, but the sheer scale of defeat needs explanation.
It has not been just an episodic defeat but is rather indicative of a long-term decline that afflicts the party. This and the electoral presence of AAP mark the beginning of a new phase in Punjab politics.
It is the SAD and not Congress that has been the main force behind different phases of post-conflict Punjab politics, moving from an ethno-religious agenda to one for peace and Hindu-Sikh harmony to the present good governance platform.
The quintessential “panthic” party, headed by Badal senior after the departure of the leaders like Tohra, Talwandi and Barnala, was able to shape politics in Punjab despite being widely perceived as primarily concerned with the rural Sikh community.
It became possible as the SAD under Badal reincarnated itself from being a “movement party” to an “electoral party”, gaining wider social and spatial support. The party’s long-standing alliance with the BJP, with its urban upper caste Hindu support base, was an effort in this direction as both parties complemented each other’s support base and also allowed the SAD to establish its newly invented “secular” image.
Arguably, it is this long-term effort of the SAD to make itself a mainstream party much like other electoral catch-all parties that has caused such a huge defeat.
First, the party leaving behind its core panthic agenda and refusing to take up substantial issues that affected its social constituency has not helped. The agrarian crisis resulting in the farmers suicides, their continuing indebtedness, problems in procurement of foodgrains, all irrevocably dented the pro-farmer image of the Akalis who were seen as catering to the urban sector.
Second, the party leadership (read Badal and his family) in order to monopolise political power systematically weakened the other two important institutions of Sikh political life i.e. the Akal Takht and the SGPC in the last two decades. This has resulted in the erosion of the traditional panthic support for the party.
Third, the SAD also suffered from the stigma of destroying the youth in Punjab due to its failure to check the drug trade, especially in rural Punjab.
Fourth, the Akali leadership has also been instrumental in weakening the BJP in order to lessen its dependence over it by encroaching on its urban constituency. The strategy has not only earned the party the wrath of the highly-influential Modi leadership but also a shift in the traditional BJP Hindu vote to the Congress.
Fifth, the over-reliance of the SAD leadership under Badal junior over the “electoral management”, hailed after unexpected victory in 2012, can only have a limited shelf-life as evident in this election.
The 2017 verdict is to be viewed as the popular rejection of the politics of the SAD, and this defeat is not a one-time routine loss, but is indicative of the endemic decline of the second-oldest party in India.
Ashutosh Kumar is professor, department of political science, Panjab University
The views expressed are personal