Bucking anti-incumbency and defying most poll predictions, the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance retained power in Punjab, routing the Congress in the 2012 assembly elections.
By its dramatic victory in the closely-contested elections, the combine created history on Tuesday as this is the first time that an incumbent has been voted to power in Punjab in more than four decades.
While Akali stalwart Parkash Singh Badal, 84, is all set to become chief minister for a record fifth term, the poll outcome is a severe setback for Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh, 69, who was hoping to return to power.
The Akali-BJP combine scored a resounding victory, notching 68 of the 117 seats in the state. The SAD, which won 49 seats in 2007, improved its tally to an impressive 56 seats, out of 94 it contested, this time.
The BJP was nowhere close to its performance in the 2007 assembly elections with 12 seats, but did much better than expected, despite being run down by most pollsters as the “vulnerable partner”.
While it was the force behind their success in 2007, winning 19 of 23 seats it contested, the BJP has helped consolidate the combine get past the magic figure and also consolidate its grip on power this time.
The alliance victory is being widely attributed to mass appeal of Parkash Singh Badal and the organisational rigour and political manoeuvring skills of his son, SAD president and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, who effectively carried out social re-engineering and played on the performance trump card.
Describing it as a vote for “peace and development”, an ecstatic Badal lavished praised on his son, stating that Sukhbir played a big role in ensuring return of SAD-BJP to power.
At 46 seats, the Congress has done a tad better than the 44 seats it bagged in the last general assembly polls, but fell way short of the magic number of ‘59’ needed to form the government.
The Congress, which is known to name its chief minister only after the results are out, had even uncharacteristically declared Capt Amarinder Singh as his chief-ministerial candidate, with other Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi making the announcement at a public rally.
Predictably, Capt Singh, who resigned himself to another stint in the opposition, was at a loss for words after the results came out.
Capt Singh, whose son Raninder Singh lost from Samana, said he accepted the people’s verdict and offered to resign as the state Congress chief.
“I will leave it to the Congress president. If she wishes I will step down,” he told reporters. While the so-called ‘third force’, the Manpreet Singh Badal-led People’s Party of Punjab, drew a blank, it appears to have hurt the Congress by cutting into its votes in urban areas.
The Congress was hoping to do well in Malwa region, which accounts for 69 seats, with the backing of powerful Dera Sacha Sauda it had wooed assiduously in the run up to the January 30 election.
However, it could bag only 31 seats, and was six below its 2007 tally. In Majha and Doaba, it improved its position only marginally.
On the other hand, the SAD sprung a big surprise in Malwa, bagging 34 seats, up from 19 in 2007, even though its ally slipped a bit there. In Majha and Doaba however, its tally was down by eight to 22 seats (11 each). The gains in Malwa more compensated for the losses in the other two regions.
While there was no undercurrent of anti-incumbency against the ruling SAD-BJP combine, it bet on its trump card — performance — and a high-visibility campaign, pulling out all stops to highlight its development initiatives, freebies, dollops of promises and welfare schemes. Also, there was an emotional pitch that this was the senior Badal’s last electoral outing.
In contrast, the Congress, which showed complacency with its leaders fighting for tickets, was hit by rebels and charges of corruption in big-ticket projects against the Congress-led government at the Centre, amplified by the Anna Hazare movement.
The party carried out an aggressive ad campaign in which it liberally used innuendo and insinuation, using fictional characters, “Jeeta and Jaggi”, to hit out at the alleged corruption, governance-deficit and highhandedness of the ruling combine.
Though the audacity of its blitzkrieg made the SAD strategists edgy at first who also responded with similar cartoon ads, they struck to their original development plank on the whole.