In Punjab, the parliamentary elections have typically been a two-horse race — between the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance and the Congress. And, electoral sweepstakes, as the past trends show, always swing against the ruling party in this border state with 13 seats.
This election, however, may end up in a clean break from old calculations. Neither of the chief combatants —the ruling SAD-BJP combine and the Congress — is on a sure footing. Because the Aam Aadmi Party and the Sanjha Morcha — a loose conglomerate of the Manpreet Singh Badal-led Akali faction, the People’s Party of Punjab, the CPI and the CPI(M) — have, for once, altered the contours of the electoral slugfest.
In a shrewd move to corner the ruling Badal family on its home turf of Bathinda — represented in the outgoing Lok Sabha by Harsimrat Kaur Badal — the Congress has sewn up a tie-up with the Morcha, conceding two Akali-dominated seats to the fledgling group.
With Morcha head Manpreet, the estranged nephew of CM Parkash Singh Badal, contesting from Bathinda, the constituency is all set for a fierce Badal versus Badal clash.
Pitting Manpreet against Harsimrat is part of the Congress strategy to tie down the Badal family to the high-stake seat. The Congress has also left Faridkot to the CPI.
In line with their time-tested formula, the SAD will contest 10 seats and the BJP three. But the incumbent partners’ unease stems from a strong anti-incumbency factor. They have to bank on their opponent’s misery.
For, the Congress remains a divided house, as state party chief Partap Singh Bajwa and his predecessor, Capt Amarinder Singh, don’t see eye-to-eye despite the high command’s belated attempts to broker a truce.
The factional feud has put a question mark on the Congress’s ability to cash in on the anti-incumbency factor after a seven-year-rule. Not that the Congress has a dearth of ammunition to pack a punch in its campaign against the SAD-BJP alliance and reap electoral dividends. At the centre of its poll tirade are the charges of corruption and misgovernance against the Badal government.
What has also come in handy for the opposition is the alleged nexus between the ruling politicians and a multi-layered drug mafia recently unravelled by the state police. Under cloud are a few Akali leaders, including powerful revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, who is also brother-in-law of SAD president and deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal.
The drug scandal’s looming shadow on the upcoming polls was evident when SAD’s first list of candidates dropped sitting MP Rattan Singh Ajnala from Khadoor Sahib last week in the wake of his alleged links with the drug scandal.
In Ludhiana, AAP candidate and Supreme Court lawyer Harvinder Singh Phoolka with credentials as a crusader in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case has turned it into a triangular contest and threatens to take away a chunk of the Panthic vote, much to the worries of the Akalis.
While the Congress is betting on the anti-incumbency sentiment, the SAD and BJP are counting on a string of sops to shore up poll prospects. The Badal government has hijacked the UPA government’s food security scheme, amalgamated it with its own ‘atta-dal’ scheme that was a vote-clincher in the 2012 assembly elections, and doubled the number of beneficiaries to 14.2 million.
The dole may help woo the Dalit vote-bank that has traditionally been the Congress support-base. Badal has also announced 112,000 new tube-wells for small farmers — a largesse aimed at consolidating the SAD’s influence over the Sikh peasantry.
First off the starting blocks, the SAD has already announced seven of its Lok Sabha candidates. BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s impressive rally at Jagraon on February 23 has lent a head start to the SAD-BJP campaign.
While the alliance partners are banking on the Modi magic to swing the urban vote-bank that holds key to most constituencies, the Congress will have to pull out all stops to avenge its most humiliating debacle in the 2012 assembly elections.