For the Congress, a spectacular victory in Punjab has come not a moment soon. It has not only ended the party’s losing spree in state elections since the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle, it has put the GOP back into the saddle in the border state after a hiatus of ten years.
The hard fought election, decidedly more acrimonious than ever before, is a significant marker in Punjab politics. While the Congress coasted to a comfortable tally, two short of a two-thirds majority, the outcome has altered the long-entrenched bipolar system of power politics.
Since the 1966 reorganisation of Punjab, the Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal have taken turns to rule the state. This time, however, a third player, the Aam Aadmi Party, has emerged as the main opposition, relegating the Akalis to number three. In a first, the Congress government, led by Capt Amarinder Singh, will have to contend with a two-pronged opposition in and outside the Vidhan Sabha.
That, however, is one of many daunting challenges for the new dispensation. As the euphoria wears off, Amarinder will soon find that winning may be easier than governing the border state beset with complex and critical issues.
Be it the drug menace, agrarian crisis, stagnant industry, rampant unemployment or a string of targeted murders and acts of terror that remain unsolved, the new government has a tough task on its hands. A simmering conflict between the Sikh hardliners and the Dera Sacha Sauda remains on a short fuse. That is ominous in a state where religious and sectarian faultlines are only skin deep, making the normalcy so deceptive.
But, Amarinder’s immediate challenge stems from the long-standing river waters dispute. The Supreme Court has read the riot act to Punjab with a direction to construct the contentious Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal to carry Haryana’s share in the Punjab rivers. Given the Captain’s doggedly anti-SYL stand, he has a minefield of legal and political issues to negotiate in the next few weeks as the apex court breathes down the state’s neck. The electorally-mauled Akalis will be waiting in the wings to latch on to this emotive issue and fan disaffection in the Sikh peasantry that deserted them in the poll.
Then, there is a burden of soaring expectations. Having based his campaign on populism, Amarinder promised virtually everyone the moon, chiefly vanquishing the drug problem in four weeks, debt waiver to farmers, and one job per family. All this when his government inherits empty coffers and a state weighed down by a debt burden of Rs 1.42 lakh crore. With the not- so- friendly Modi regime at the Centre, the Congress government is likely to have a very short honeymoon.