Into the fourth year of his government’s rule, Sukhbir Singh Badal led busloads of journalists and Akali-BJP MLAs to the site of an upcoming Rs 19,000-crore oil refinery in Bathinda’s back of the beyond. The purpose was to showcase what he touted as the biggest project — and proof — of his development agenda. Later, flying at 4,500-feet in his helicopter, the SAD president excitedly pointed to gigantic chimneys on the ground. “I can tell you that the project will turn around Punjab’s economy. But, will this fetch us the votes?” he wondered aloud in a matter-of-fact tone.
At the back of his mind, ostensibly, was Punjab’s electoral history of booting out the incumbent every five years no matter how it performed.
Cut to March 6, 2012. The Punjab voter has decisively answered Sukhbir’s question. The emphatic victory of the SAD-BJP alliance in the fiercely-contested assembly elections has proved several things — the most significant of them being that Punjab has finally made a clean break from the long-entrenched cyclic — and cynical — trend and learnt to reward a governance-oriented politics.
Also, it is the first time that the Shiromani Akali Dal, the country’s oldest regional party intrinsically rooted in both politics and religion, dumped its time-old ‘Panth-in-peril’ narrative imbued with emotional slogans, and instead went to elections on the ‘progress-at-stake’ gambit.
In that sense, the second coming of the SAD-BJP combine is a defining moment in the state’s political evolution. It is a triumph of pragmatic politics and an all-encompassing and generous social welfarism, notably the ‘atta-dal’ scheme, coupled with a convincing futuristic agenda.
Riding these dynamics, the ruling coalition romped home resoundingly, dashing the Congress’s hopes that were complacently pegged to anti-incumbency and the state’s electoral history of rotational power in its bipolar polity.
Bereft of a clear wave, the electoral slugfest had largely hinged on a smart political strategy and poll management — a game in which Sukhbir outmanoeuvred the Congress in almost all quarters. Knowing only too well that Brand Badal was still the party’s best bet, the SAD president shrewdly projected his father, Parkash Singh Badal, as the chief ministerial candidate, calling it the stalwart’s last election — an emotional appeal that seemingly struck a chord with the Sikh masses.
Also, the Akali-BJP juggernaut was powered by its doggedly positive campaign wrapped around its development credentials and a raft of populist promises, including such out-of-the-box ideas as free laptops for senior school students.
To his credit, Sukhbir not only wrote and fine-tuned the script but also stuck to it — from day one. Having cast himself as a pragmatic moderniser — an image buttressed by his tenacious push for big-ticket projects and omnibus governance reforms — the crown prince of Akali politics convincingly aligned the party’s futuristic pitch to the expanding aspirational urges of Punjab.
What also clicked for SAD was Sukhbir’s adroitly-executed social engineering of forging a ‘Jat-Bania’ combination to broaden the party’s electoral appeal beyond the Sikh constituency. For the first time in their nine-decade-old history, the Akalis fielded as many as 11 Hindus faces, many in Malwa region. And, ten of them came up winners.
Not that the Akalis ever abandoned their Panthic agenda. Parkash Singh Badal did play a soft Panthic card — by inaugurating four high-profile Sikh memorials just before the elections. But, he packaged it, in his inimitable moderate style, as a communally inclusive initiative and linked it to the Panth’s secular and nationalist ethos.
In contrast, Capt Amarinder Singh overplayed the anti-incumbency hand, smug in a self-delusionary ‘now-my-turn-to-rule’ belief. Not only did the Congress fail to put out a grander vision for Punjab, its manifesto was an insipid recipe — in part, a photocopy of the Akalis’ populist schemes — and failed to entice voters. The Congress erred in making negative campaigning its signature tune.
Nor did Amarinder’s unabashed wooing of the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda click. In fact, the verdict has called the dera’s bluff on its influence as evident from the defeat of the Congress’s Harminder Singh Jassi, who is a close relation of the dera chief.
On the other hand, anti-incumbency against the Congress-led UPA government has played out against the party, chiefly in urban Punjab, much to the advantage of the BJP, which has bounced back with a creditable performance.
Worse, all the potential spoilers — including the Manpreet Badal-led Sanjha Morcha, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress rebels — rocked the Congress boat. In fact, Manpreet’s wobbly People’s Party of Punjab seems to have acted like a political suicide bomber for the Congress by slicing away the anti-Akali vote.
Fumbling in his very first electoral test, Manpreet’s attempt to create a third front has come a cropper. Having lost both seats he contested and because of his failure to open an account in the assembly, the former Punjab finance minister stares into political wilderness. His utopian agenda had more takers on Facebook than on the field. From Sukhbir’s standpoint, the PPP leader’s decimation makes his victory a double delight because, at one level, the election was also a battle of the two cousins.
The Punjab poll outcome has amply demonstrated that performance can pay electoral dividends. It has set a new benchmark. Having promised virtually the moon to the electorate, it is now the SAD-BJP’s turn to live up to soaring expectations.