Driving through Majha’s Panthic belt into Doaba across the river Beas and finally to Malwa past the Sutlej, the narratives one heard on the ground were varied, even conflicting.
Is the voter confused? Or in two-minds? Were we missing something out in the oft-heard: “Here it’s the Congress... AAP is in the vicinity.” The mind-bogglingly split-view was audible as much in Majha’s Khadoor Sahab, Doaba’s Kapurthala and Malwa’s Ludhiana.
The one take-away from the trip was that Punjab’s verdict will certainly be divided, if not fractured. To the uninitiated, that might seem anachronistic.
Here the divide denotes the possibility of Majha and Doaba going with the Congress and Malwa that has bigger legislative muscle, leaning towards the Aam Aadmi Party.
Choices differ as much at other levels: between cities and villages; youth and the middle aged-elderly; committed BJP and Akali voters. In cities, the matured urban voter including saffron supporters are betraying a pro-Congress bias. On the flip side are loud AAP backers in predominantly rural Malwa. There’s evidence of the trend they’ve unleashed gaining traction across regions.
For instance, a hosiery-store owner in Ludhiana was upfront in his support of the Congress: “I’m a BJP man. But I know a vote for it would mean backing the Akalis or helping the AAP gain power.” The rethink made sense from his standpoint. Business flourished and real estate boomed when Amarinder Singh was CM.
In contrast, Akali renegades have no love for the Congress and the first-time voter no knowledge of Amarinder’s captaincy. Those who’re 18 were barely eight-year-old when the Congress lost power in 2007.
“It’s Congress here but AAP in Punjab,” replied two class 10 students at a snack-bar in Kapurthala where the Congress’s Rana Gurjit is popular. They had no vote. But the word-of-mouth support of their age-group built the mood to reject the known for the untried, the new!
What then could prevent the regional and urban-rural divide from throwing up a fractured mandate? The answer perhaps is in the 2007 result when the Congress won 37 seats in Malwa but only six in Majha and Doaba. So, a victory short of a landslide in the 68-seat region isn’t necessarily a ticket to Chandigarh.
A last minute surge in cities and small towns for the party perceived as capable of a majority — could also defeat prospects of a hung assembly. “The Badals want President’s rule to wield power by proxy,” said a Jalandhar-based trader. He said bigger transfer of the BJP vote to the Congress could obviate that possibility.
Struggling to retain ground in Malwa, the Congress, by all accounts, has a clear edge in Majha and Doaba, especially in Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Jalandhar. It faces a relatively tougher battle in Malwa’s Ludhiana where the AAP’s challenge is led by lawyer-activist H S Phoolka – in tandem with the Lok Insaf Party of the battle-hardened Bains brothers.
It’ll be interesting to watch whether Ludhiana that has over a dozen seats will follow urban Punjab that isn’t fixated on a tradition-defying vote. The city-dwellers’ who despise the Akalis aren’t averse to the Congress — unlike the rural folk rooting for AAP.
Be that as it may, the Congress would be happy if the Akalis cut their losses — for the bigger the erosion of their base, the greater will be the ground captured by AAP.
Vinod Sharma is the political editor of Hindustan Times