In handing down a resounding victory to the Congress, Punjab has lived up to its time-tested electoral record of decisive mandates. And, the comeback captain in this hard-fought election is Amarinder Singh who not only made the most of anti-incumbency ire against the 10-year rule of the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine but also fended off a stiff challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party that had fancied itself as a disruptor in the state’s binary politics.
By all accounts, the election results are far better for the erstwhile scion of Patiala royalty that even his own party had foreseen. Against the Uttar Pradesh disaster, a spectacular showing in Punjab is a “sanjeevani” that will keep alive the Congress’ hope for a revival in national politics ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. For the grand old party it also underscores a critical lesson: Empowering regional satraps is the only way to revive its pan-India fortunes.
It may be tempting to interpret the Punjab triumph as an example of Singh’s remarkable luck. After all, he had presided over two back-to-back assembly debacles (2007 and 2012) before resurrecting himself from the footnote to the frontline with a Lok Sabha win from Amritsar in 2014.
Truth be told, it’s a feat pulled off largely by Singh’s charisma and credentials as a gritty fighter. His political heft had no match in Arvind Kejriwal’s party, which, in hindsight, was punching way above its weight.
While tapping into the mother lode of anger against the ruling Badals, Singh, as campaigner-in-chief for the Congress, deftly made the most of AAP’s mistakes. He made political corruption his chief plank. He focused on a development pitch, with a “fix-the-broken-Punjab” narrative.
AAP, the rookie party, in contrast, promised to jail the Badal within four weeks of coming to power — the centrepiece of the party’s negative campaign that eventually didn’t go well with aspiration-bound Punjabis. But, AAP lost the plot by its dalliance with Sikh radicals, some of them avowedly Khalistanis, in its zeal to mop up the anti-Akali vote.
Crucially, Kejriwal blundered by staying at the home of a former terrorist. In a state where the dark 1980s are never a distant past, such a risky gambit and a bomb blast on the eve of polling day, revived old fears. The violence-weary voters, particularly the Hindus who are 43% of the electorate, plumped for the Congress. That also helps explain why the Modi magic didn’t work even in BJP bastions in urban Punjab. The saffron party was reduced to its worst ever tally.
Singh’s unambiguous and tough stand on Punjab’s river waters also went down well in Malwa, an Akali citadel that had emerged as ground zero for AAP’s surge. While his resignation from the Lok Sabha against the Supreme Court ruling on the contentious Sutlej Yamuna Link canal bolstered his standing among the Sikh peasantry, he skilfully used the emotive inter-state issue to focus on Kejriwal’s Haryana roots and labelled him an “outsider”.
The Akalis’ had their share of political missteps. Their last-minute deal with the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda backfired and drove the peasantry into Singh’s arms. Not surprisingly, not just sprawling Malwa with 69 of 117 seats, other regions of Doaba and Majha too turned out to the rich hunting ground for the Congress and a Waterloo for both the Akalis and AAP — to the uttter delight of Amarinder Singh on his 75th birthday.