The way elections are fought in Punjab, which has traditionally seen a straight contest between the BJP-Akali alliance and the Congress, will change this year with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party fighting for the first time.
Punjab will vote in a single phase on February 4 and counting of votes will take place on March 11.
As a three-horse race gets fiercer by the day, here’s a 360-degree look at the electoral landscape in the northern state.
Main parties in the fray:
Shiromani Akali Dal
The SAD has fought 10 assembly elections from 1966-2012 and ruled the state for over 20 years. It has formed four coalition governments with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh but they did not last their terms. From 1967 to 2007, the Akalis have dominated rural constituencies and that explains their focus on agrarian issues. The party has an alliance with the BJP since 1997.
As the shrewd slayer of adversaries and a spirited survivor in the rough and tumble of politics, Akali patriarch and Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal is now ‘Brand Badal’. The 89-year-old will be the spearhead to counter the two-term anti-incumbency issue. His 54-year-old son and heir apparent Sukhbir will be the lynchpin of the Akali challenge. With a firm grip on Akali Dal and all levers of power, Sukhbir is credited as much with transforming the party as for forging the government’s development agenda. He scripted the SAD-BJP combine’s historic successive win in 2012.
The outcome of the 2017 assembly poll will determine the political future of party chief and CM-in-waiting Sukhbir. This time, his reputation as a shrewd poll strategist, who is flush with money power, will also be tested.
Bharatiya Janata Party
The saffron party and the SAD forged their first pre-election alliance in 1996 which has since solidified into a social coalition encompassing Sikhs and the BJP vote bank of Hindus. Out of four assembly polls in last two decades, the combine has won three - in 1997, 2007, 2012 - and ruled as steady partners. The SAD has a say in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its patron Parkash Singh Badal is well respected.
A prominent Dalit face in Punjab BJP, Vijay Sampla is from Adharmi caste and has a scattered support base in Doaba. He started out as a plumber and went on to become Punjab BJP president in 2016, two decades after he joined the party. Known to be Narendra Modi’s man, he became the Lok Sabha MP from Hoshiarpur in 2014 and was inducted into the Union cabinet in the first reshuffle in 2015 as a minister of state. An able organiser who connects with the masses easily, the BJP sees in him a face who can swing Dalit votes for it.
Despite murmurs of strain, its alliance with SAD is holding fast in a sink-or-swim-together mode. The saffron party will be facing the elections in the state that suffered after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s contentious ban on high-value banknotes.
- 22 MLAs had declared criminal cases
- 14 women elected
- 31 was the age of the youngest MLA – Inderbir Singh Bolaria, Amritsar South
- 84 was the age of the oldest MLA Parkash Singh Badal, Lambi
- 50,269 votes highest victory margin. Sukhbir Singh Badal (SAD) from Jalalabad
- 31 votes lowest victory margin. Avinash Chander (SAD) from Phillaur
Major parties and total seats
The party’s traditional vote bank is Hindus and Dalits, who now comprise 32% of the population. But the Akalis have breached its Dalit votes and the BJP has gained sway over Hindu voters. The state’s revolving-door history that’s returned the Congress and the SAD governments to power alternatively, changed with the Akali win in 2012. The Congress now has a challenger in the AAP that is trying to emerge as an alternative in Punjab and other states.
A former Patiala royal, Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh has tried to shed the confrontationist and bold tag by braving the heat and dust of Punjab’s roads. He is not resorting to ‘khunda politics’ (sabre rattling) either and is offering the moon to voters. His resignations against Operation Bluestar and Black Thunder in the ’80s give him some Panthic heft. He quit as Amritsar MP last month over the Supreme Court ruling on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal. An ex-CM, he is campaigning as the Congress CM face though awaiting an announcement to that effect by the party.
It is a prestige battle for Captain, who has announced the 2017 polls as his last hurrah after the party lost consecutive elections under his command.
The 2017 election is a fight for its survival not just in Punjab but also nationally.
Navjot Singh Sidhu
Sidhu’s political career took a downturn after a spat with the Badal-led SAD — and the BJP denied him the ticket in 2014. He was rehabilitated in the Rajya Sabha from which he resigned this year. By mid-2016, he was in a new political space. The AAP needed a Sikh face, and his anti-Badal stance suited it. But Kejriwal and Sidhu failed to seal the deal. Sidhu floated a front that the Bains brothers left in favour of the AAP. His wife Navjot Kaur and former Indian hockey captain Pargat Singh have since joined Congress.
Sidhu is expected to follow suit soon. A fiery orator, he could be the star campaigner for the Congress and will contest the assembly polls from Amritsar (East) constituency.
Aam Aadmi Party
Punjab gave the AAP a lifeline in 2014. The party won its four Lok Sabha seats from the state. This time, the AAP sees an opportunity to convert the two-term anti-incumbency against the SAD-BJP alliance, and possible tiredness with a bipolar polity, into votes for itself. After the Delhi win, the Punjab unit was built as a launchpad for national plans. Many local founders are since out, and those from Delhi are termed as greedy outsiders.
A power struggle within has overshadowed plans to gain power. From extreme support until early this year, the party has seen a downswing. It was off guard on emotive issues such as its symbol (the broom) on a photo of the Golden Temple on its manifesto. The AAP is its own enemy. Two of its four MPs remain suspended from the party, another is hardly visible, and yet another wants to be CM already. But its primary selling point remains a desire for change and the personality of its leader Kejriwal.
Kejriwal remains the AAP’s most saleable face. His street-level, at time times crass, style and the image of a crusader appeal to an angry, change-hungry electorate, particularly in the emotionally-charged culture of Punjab.
He shatters theories by attracting crowds and support across Punjab despite being a Hindi-speaking Hindu from Haryana whose attempts at speaking Punjabi have, so far, only led to speculation that he wants to be Punjab CM now. He operates through trusted lieutenants from his Delhi team, despite criticism. These days, he is seen surrounded by turbaned and local leaders.
The AAP boss and the CM of Delhi, the loudest detractor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is busy crisscrossing the country to make his presence felt at the national level, but the road to his national target goes through Punjab.
Apna Punjab Party
Sucha Singh Chhotepur launched the APP with AAP rebels after a fallout with the AAP and is set to go solo this time. The 66-year-old was both in the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) before joining the AAP after the 2014 parliamentary polls. Son-in-law of Akali stalwart Mohan Singh Tur, Chhotepur was the AAP’s most prominent and local Sikh face before his removal in August, 2016 from the convener’s post following a sting allegedly showing him accepting cash.
A former state minister of tourism and independent MLA, Chhotepur’s political turf is confined to Gurdaspur, and his future will depend largely on how his APP performs in 2017.
- Number of beneficiaries under atta-dal scheme, where wheat is given at Rs 2/kg and dal at Rs 20/kg, doubled
- Free bus, train trips to places of faith, revamp of heritage sites
- Spruced up road network with overbridges, expressways
- Tighter control over police, bureaucracy
- Alignment with deras, which have sway over various sects
- Anger among Sikh radicals and clergy over incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib
- Strong anti-incumbency after 10-year rule of the alliance
- Public perception of businesses of the ruling Badal family profiting
- With power vested in the family, the Badals have alienated senior leaders
- Alleged high-handedness of Akali Dal politicians and police
Issues that matter
It has hit Punjab’s small and medium industry badly since labour is paid in cash. The farm sector has also been hit. Unless the cash situation eases up before polls, this could be one of the swing factors.
The arrest of alleged kingpin Jagdish Bhola and probes against politicians have made it a potent issue. The state is notorious for the high number of drug abuse cases and rehabilitation centre. The hype around Bollywood film Udta Punjab that tackled the problem has brought the issue back into the forefront.
There has been a huge spend on infrastructure. Punjab now ranks among power-surplus states, and its airports and heritage buildings are helping the government play the progress card. But nepotism and cronyism have marred the government’s claims.
Economy and employment
Punjab stares at a debt of Rs 1.4 lakh crore, and its coffers are empty due to the government’s populist schemes. Industrial and farm growth are stagnant. At 60 per 1,000, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average of 50.
The SAD thrives on Panthic (religiopolitical) agenda but is at the receiving end due to incidents of sacrilege that gave arsenal to radicals. The AAP and Congress want to channelise people’s anger into votes.
Law and order
The law and order issue is in the spotlight again after the jailbreak at Nabha. Punjab has been in recent months rocked by daylight murders of sect leaders, punishment killings by liquor mafia, and gang wars.
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