Almost two years ahead of the assembly elections, Punjab is bracing for yet another electoral bout. The February 22 and 25 slugfest covering six municipal corporations (MCs) and 123 municipal councils/notified area committees has already, but alarmingly, raised the temperature within the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Even as all main political outfits are contesting the elections on their party symbols and the SAD-BJP alliance has continued with the old seat-sharing agreement, the threat to the prospects of SAD and BJP candidates is more from within - and also from each other than the opposition Congress, which continues to grapple with the perennial factional feud.
As the outcome of these urban local bodies' polls will be debated as a litmus test of the "development agenda" of SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal and a reflection on the eight-year continuous rule of the SAD-BJP alliance, the stage is set for a keenly contested tussle.
Bitterness is back
The already fragile health of the ruling alliance has taken another hit, after a brief lull, following the Tarn Taran episode in which the brother of local bodies minister and BJP MLA Anil Joshi was allegedly attacked by Akali leaders.
While the total voters in Punjab are more than 1.96 crore, the total electorate in the upcoming elections is nearly 37 lakh. Thus, the outcome of these polls, also being described in party circles as a "semifinal" before the 2017 assembly elections, would merely reflect how much ground is held by the SAD, BJP and the Congress.
Apart from the six MCs -- Pathankot, Hoshiarpur, Phagwara, Moga, SAS Nagar and Bathinda bypolls will also be held in three wards of Jalandhar and Patiala MC. While the Bathinda MC - the backyard of the Badals - is going to the polls for the second time, in the other five MCs, the elections are being conducted for the first time.
The six MCs comprise 300 wards (50 each). In the MCs of SAS Nagar, Hoshiarpur, Phagwara and Moga, the SAD is contesting from 33 wards each, while the BJP has fielded its candidates on 17 seats each. But in Pathankot, the BJP is contesting from all 50 wards. In Bathinda, the SAD is testing its popularity in 28 wards, while the BJP has got the opportunity to spread its base in 22 wards.
Chance for SAD to shed 'rural' tag
The February 22 MC polls, for which more than 1,000 candidates of different hues are in the fray, is an opportunity for the SAD to shed its traditional tag of a party with a rural base. The SAD has deputed its frontline leaders to 'manage and monitor' the elections in five MCs. The party has also planned to hold rallies in a few MCs, while the command of campaigning in municipal councils/notified area committees is in the hands of the MLA or halqa incharge concerned.
"Though the general impression about the SAD is that it is a party confined to rural areas, we were in power in a majority of the municipal councils/notified area committees going to the polls," according to SAD strategist and education minister Dr Daljit Singh Cheema.
According to Punjab-based political observers, the dominating poll discourse is over water supply, roads, sewerage and schools, and that despite a huge baggage of eight years' incumbency, the SAD has the advantage of being the party in power.
In fact, the SAD-BJP alliance, despite the below-par showing in the Lok Sabha elections and a humiliating defeat in the Delhi elections, is banking on the perception that people tend to go with the party in power in such elections which are fought also on issues other than development.
It may well be a cakewalk for the SAD-BJP combine if the Congress doesn't overcome its slumber.