A five-time octogenarian chief minister, a former maharaja who says he’s contesting his last election and an upstart politician fighting the ‘outsider’ tag.
An unprecedented three-way election in Punjab ends on Saturday as more than 20 million votes are counted to elect a new assembly.
Exit polls have predicted a drubbing for incumbent CM Parkash Singh Badal and his ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance. But the forecast is split between the Congress – led by former royal Amarinder Singh – and rookie Aam Aadmi Party, powered by Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, on who will form the next government.
The results will mark the end of a long wait for a state that voted on February 4, which was preceded by months of bitter campaigning that saw religious and caste overtures, development rhetoric and even an explosion at a rally that left six people dead.
The state’s 117 seats are split between the Malwa (69), Majha (25) and Doaba (23) regions, and the halfway mark is 59.
Each party made the obligatory promises of development, jobs, crop bonuses and smartphone freebies, but any incoming government is likely to find Punjab in a deep fiscal hole. State debt stands at a staggering Rs 1.25 lakh crore, while the state’s 9.75 lakh farmers collectively owe their banks Rs 80,000 crore in personal debts.
Anger runs high across the state over unsolved cases of desecration of the Sikh holy book in 2015 and parched farmlands that have seen little irrigation from rain or canals. Thousands of farmers have protested against a Supreme Court decision to share water of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal – a flashpoint since the 1980s – with Haryana. All three parties insist they will safeguard Punjab’s water but any new government will have to balance local sentiment with legal ramifications. The next hearing in the case is fixed for March 23, a mere 12 days after the poll result.
The stakes are highest for the Congress, which is banking on Amarinder Singh’s personal charisma and Navjot Sidhu’s bluster to carry it past the majority mark. Besieged by a string of electoral reverses, the party desperately needs a win in Punjab to turn around its national political fortunes.
For Arvind Kejriwal, Punjab offers an opportunity to prove that the AAP is more than just a Delhi party. A strong anti-incumbency vote against the ruling Badal family, coupled with the Congress’s national decline, could create an opening for this third force. The rookie party has made repeated overtures to Sikh faithful and the Dalits, who form a third of the state, by promising a scheduled caste deputy CM.
But the battle seems toughest for the ruling Badals that is beleaguered by mounting anti-incumbency after two straight terms with protests against the CM’s family interests in business and alleged corruption in the running of Sikh institutions. But the SAD remains a force in Punjab’s panthic (religious) regions, and deputy CM Sukhbir has acquired a reputation as a wily and effective campaign manager.
The highs and lows of the poll fight
- The arrival of the Aam Aadmi Party offers a genuine third front for those tired of the Congress-Akali Dal duopoly.
- The poll agenda was set by Punjab’s active social media users, rather than handed down by respective party high commands.
- The Election Commission played a proactive role in ensuring a fair contest.
- Parties made extravagant promises despite Punjab’s poor fiscal health.
- Punjab’s octogenarian chief minister Parkash Singh Badal was hit by a shoe whilst addressing a poll rally.
- A bomb blast in Maur claimed six lives during the poll campaign.
Show Hurled: On January 11, a Sikh youth hurled a shoe at chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, injuring the five time CM in the eye. The incident happened when Badal was campaigning in his Lambi constituency. Hurt and wounded by the shoe attack on Badal, the Akalis blamed the AAP for the incident.
AAP with Sikh Radicals: The Sikh radicals were back in play in Punjab politics, coalescing behind the Aam Aadmi Party. With the newbie party making no effort to distance itself from the fundamentalist fringe, the Akali and Congress went after it all guns blazing.
The alleged nexus of the AAP with the Sikh radicals and hardliners got fillip when AAP boss Arvind Kejriwal stayed overnight at the house of an ex-militant in Moga. This adventurous move of Kejriwal had put the party on the defensive and its spin-masters went into a tizzy.
Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal: The political parties squeezed to the hilt the emotive Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal issue which sprung itself to the centre stage after the Supreme Court ordered sharing of water with Haryana. For AAP, the SYL was a slippery turf, while Akali Dal and the Congress pulled all the stops to emerge as the true champions of protecting interests of Punjab.
Dera Support: The Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda’s dramatic move to support the Akali Dal-BJP combine caused unease in AAP and the Congress camps. All the political parties pulled all the stops to woo different Dera heads in the region. Leaders from across all the parties made a beeline to bow before the controversial Sirsa dera head to garner support of his followers who have a formidable presence in Malwa belt of Punjab.
Maur Blasts: The twin blasts at Maur Mandi, just four days before polling, vitiated the atmosphere besides reviving memories of the bloody 1980s. Both SAD and Congress accused AAP of hobnobbing with radicals.